Utah’s largest teachers’ union has canceled its annual convention for 2018 — but don’t worry, schools still get their fall recess

Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo UEA President Heidi Matthews waits as Utah Gov. Gary Herbert finishes his talk during the opening of the National Education Association Convention, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.

For the first time in its 100-year history, the largest teachers’ union in the state will not hold an annual fall convention.

The Utah Education Association has canceled its traditional two-day gathering — once slated for Oct. 18 and 19 — citing years of declining participation. Less than a quarter of the organization’s 18,000 members attended the event in 2017.

“This was not a quick decision,” said UEA President Heidi Matthews. “But we have decided to take a break from it for now.”

In place of the conference, leaders of the organization plan to use the time to talk to voters about supporting Our Schools Now, the nonbinding question on November’s ballot that would boost school funding with a proposed gas-tax increase.

“We’re just shifting our energy,” Matthews said.

The decision to upend the conference, though, came too late for Utah’s public schools to adjust their calendars — which are set up more than a year in advance and include a fall break during the union’s convention days (what has previously been called UEA weekend). That way, teachers can go to the event and students can have some time off.

“It’s always been aligned with UEA,” said Jordan School District spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf. “That was really the main reason why we give that fall recess.”

Ben Horsley, spokesman for Granite School District, said there are “no plans to make adjustments to our calendar.” Students and their families, he said, plan on fall break and benefit from having a few days away from school.

“The break is built-in and nice,” he said. “It’s something they’ve come to rely on and enjoy.”

So the students will still get the time off — and Matthews hopes teachers will, too. She cited a new study from the Utah Education Policy Center that concludes the No. 1 reason educators leave the profession is “emotional exhaustion, stress and burnout.”

Internal surveys UEA has conducted, too, found that most of its members who skip the annual conference do so because they want time off. When asked what could be changed to get them to come, Matthews added, the most common answer is “nothing.”

“These vacation days are far much more valuable to them,” she said. “They need time to recharge.”

The state used to compensate teachers for participating in the UEA conference; now, only a few districts do. The event also used to be the only place where educators could fulfill the requirements or get credits to keep a license up to date; now, there are ways to do that online.

Both of those changes, Matthews said, affected attendance. Fewer than 5,000 educators were at the convention last fall. That’s significant when there are slightly more than 26,000 public-school teachers in Utah.

“We just need to get with the times,” Matthews said. People don’t want to travel to the conference, she noted, and don’t want to spend the time away from their families.

The convention dates have already been set for 2019 — Oct. 17 and 18 — but Matthews said it’s possible that event will be scrapped, too.