Maya Decker
Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers


Ben Rust Award 1997

In everything she does, Maya Decker epitomizes the qualities exemplified by Ben Rust. She demonstrates strong commitment to the three major areas of involvement of any AFT leader/member: education, politics and the union movement.

Ben Rust set a high standard for this award as a master teacher, an AFT/CFT leader, a political activist and a dedicated unionist. Maya’s commitment to students and teaching, her political activism and years of service to her local and state federation place her among those honoring and honored by this the highest award bestowed by the California Federation of Teachers.

Maya Decker joined the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 1794, in her first year of teaching as one of its 22 charter members, motivated by the idea that managers should not belong to the employees’ union. Although her colleagues cautioned her not to rock the boat, she believed that teachers not only have the right but also the responsibility to be publicly true to their convictions.

Continuing to express her convictions, she actively campaigned in three collective bargaining elections in 1976, 1979 and again in 1985, when the NMFT local became bargaining agent for the teachers in the Newport-Mesa district. In addition to president, Maya has held nearly every office in NMFT, among them charter vice president, secretary, treasurer, grievance chair and negotiating team member.

Maya has lived and led her union through feast and famine in Orange County. Between 1987 and 1992, the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers won salary increases more than doubling the state COLA. The triple whammy of California’s economic depression and falling properly taxes, the embezzlement of $3.9 million and the Orange County bankruptcy put an end to raises in Newport-Mesa, but did not shake Maya’s commitment to the bottom line of full funding for California education. She believes in working together to do battle for greater fiscal support for schools with no apologies to anyone.

Through her leadership, the union protected teachers’ jobs, extended their rights and preserved salaries and benefits. Maya led her local in a proactive stance in educational improvement, working toward establishing a trust agreement between the union and the district. Under it, restructuring schools can seek waivers from specific provisions of district policies, the collective bargaining agreement, or state law seen as impediments to student learning. She also pioneered interest-based bargaining in the district. A climate of shared responsibility remains as Maya’s legacy.

Maya rose to the challenge of the anti-voucher campaign in 1993, lending office space, organizing volunteers and pledging over $15,000 to help defeat Proposition 174. That campaign as well as negative publicity about public education spurred Maya to join the Good News Coalition which brought together AFT, CTA, CSEA, superintendents, school boards and PTA members. By taking a proactive stand, the coalition counters misinformation about public schools and gets out the good news, thus modeling the kind of political activity most beneficial for all members of the education community.

While accomplishing so much in her local community and district, at the state level Maya did not sit back and let others work. She served as vice president of the CFT from 1975-1985, as vice president of the EC/K-12 Council 1993-1997, and as CFT Legal Defense Committee Chair for several years. She represented the state Federation on the Waivers Advisory Panel established by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, as well as the Advisory Panel established to work on implementation of legislation on teacher assignment.

On numerous occasions Maya taught and presented at CFT mini-ULIs, formula-funded staff conferences and local leadership trainings, sharing her extensive knowledge about and experience in running an effective local union. All her brothers and sisters acknowledge her as a mentor, recognizing the reflective unionist who not only understands the practical, ethical and political implications of leadership, but always articulates them compellingly.

An educator at heart, Maya never lost her love for teaching. This year she returned to the high school classroom to teach a full load of U.S. History. Not only has that return satisfied Maya, but her fellow educators hailed her. “Maya is a master teacher,” said a former principal. “She modeled ‘best practice’ and had a highly developed sense of integrity. She transcended her role as teacher to become a model for all the new teachers.” She has remained a lifelong learner in her birdwatching trips around the world. Maya’s commitment to teaching and learning has informed all her work on behalf of her colleagues in the classroom.

Maya Decker’s response to any description of her achievements and contributions will always be to acknowledge the crucial role played by “hundreds of people over the years who help in a myriad of collective ways to make their union what it is.” A true leader, Maya has left her local in good hands, continuing to advocate for effective education and for its members. By joining with others, she has distinguished herself and enriched those around her.