The new president of one of Louisiana's two teacher unions is a Baton Rouge special education teacher who will be out of the classroom next month for the first time in 13 years.

"I went to the Dollar Tree (store) and saw those education materials and just wanted to pick up everything so badly," laughed Tia Mills, who is now president of the Louisiana Association of Educators.

But Mills, who has been president of the East Baton Rouge Parish affiliate for past seven years, is also passionate about boosting teacher salaries well beyond the $1,000 pay raise approved this year, and back to the regional average.

"I thought it was a nice gesture,'' Mills said of the $1,000 increase, which was pushed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

"But I knew that it was not even close to being enough," she said.

"We take care of the children when they are not with their parents," Mills said of teachers.

"The education system is their home away from home," she said. 

"This is a major responsibility, and for us to be able to adequately do that and make sure we have the best  in the classroom we need to make sure we pay them what they need to be paid," Mills said.

Kirk Green, a friend of Mills who teaches 7th grade social studies at Westdale Middle School, is a member of the LAE's rival union: the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

However, Green said it is a plus to have an outspoken teacher leader who is fresh off more than a dozen years on the front lines of public schools.

"What I love about her is she is going to be a fighter for us," Green said.

The LAE represents about 20,000 teachers, support workers, school bus drivers and others.

Both the LAE and LFT play roles in setting the public school agenda in Louisiana, including debates in the state Legislature and at the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

At 37, Mills is the youngest to serve as president of the LAE.

She succeeds Debbie Meaux, who was president for six years.

Meaux was known for her low-key demeanor even during heated debates over teacher pay, annual evaluations and state aid for public schools.

Mills, as president of the roughly 1,000-member East Baton Rouge affiliate of the LAE, is known to mix it up on education issues.

"When something is wrong she is going to say it," Green said.

"When someone needs to be stepped up for, she will step up," he said. "She is not going to be run over. She is not going to be pushed around. She will speak her mind."

Mills' local group worked closely with Together Louisiana to oppose what they view as unwise corporate tax breaks through the Industrial Tax Exemption Program – called ITEP – at the expense of local schools.

Her group and others scored a major victory in January when the East Baton Rouge Parish school board rejected two requests for tax exemptions from ExxonMobil.

"We were already running on a deficit budget," Mills said of the importance of ITEP debates. "We couldn't afford to see any additional monies leave the district."

Allies say the new LAE president is persistent without being offensive.

"I think Tia is a fighter," said Broderick Bagert, an organizer with Together Louisiana who has worked with Mills for four or five years.

"And I have not met anybody that she cannot work with," Bagert added.

Mills, who is from Maringouin, is a 2000 graduate of North Iberville Parish High School.

She earned her undergraduate and master's degrees from Southern University and a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University, an online school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Her most recent job was teaching special education students at Eden Park Superintendent's Academy, an alternative school for elementary children.

Mills said she relished teaching autistic students at various stops in East Baton Rouge Parish schools.

"Despite the fact that they had an exceptionality they are brilliant, brilliant students," she said.

"Artistic. Musical. You name it," she said.

"It just exceeds what an average person can do. I love seeing their abilities and being able to help develop that into something even more special for them." 

Teachers are paid an average of about $51,000 per year in Louisiana.

The governor, who is seeking a second term this year, has said the $1,000 pay boost this year is the first in a three-year plan to reach the regional average.

Despite successful teacher walkouts in Oklahoma, Arizona and elsewhere Mills downplayed interest among LAE members in taking similar action.

Other options need to be pursued "before we go down and even look at something as drastic as that," Mills said.

Email Will Sentell @wsentell@theadvocate.com.