After its last two presidents left office facing criminal charges, Broward’s teachers union is poised to elect a new president through a mail-in election starting later this month.
The odds-on favorite to win that election: The union’s first vice president, Bernie Schultz, who pleaded guilty in March to illegal campaign contributions, and built a reputation as a solid supporter of former union President Pat Santeramo.
Santeramo, arrested in July, is awaiting trial on charges he stole about $300,000 from the Broward Teachers Union through a combination of vendor kickbacks and illegally inflated payments for sick and vacation time. Santeramo denies any criminal wrongdoing.
How Schultz became the dominant candidate in a union still struggling to restore its reputation is a case study in politics — demonstrating the power of name recognition, incumbency, and the limited knowledge voters often have when making their candidate selections.
“Definitely, she is the front-runner, despite her past,” said rival BTU presidential candidate Bryan Caletka, one of four running for the post. “The average teacher doesn’t realize that the person that they recognize, that’s been on the ballot for the last 20 years, actually was involved in the corruption.”
Schultz, a BTU member for 29 years, describes herself as an ethical person who was unknowingly caught in Santeramo’s criminal web, as were others at the union. Four other union officials were charged with campaign finance violations similar to Schultz’s. All received a year of probation, and none have been forced out of the union, though one voluntarily took a job elsewhere.
In court documents, prosecutors accused Schultz of writing a $500 check in 2010 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink — money that was later illegally reimbursed to Schultz from the union’s operating account. Schultz says she acted at Santeramo’s urging, and didn’t realize she was committing a crime.
“It was a lesson learned,” said Schultz, who argues that her lengthy experience will help the union move forward during this difficult time.
Santeramo faces five counts of campaign contribution violations, though those are overshadowed by more-serious charges of grand theft, money laundering, and racketeering.
Schultz’s current union position carries a high degree of visibility. She introduced American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten at a back-to-school event last month. A BTU mass email announcing that event praised Schultz as “one of the union’s most beloved leaders” — a line that irritated Schultz’s opponents, who complain the union power structure is promoting Schultz instead of holding a neutral election.
The next president will assume the reins after a year of the union being run by the AFT, its parent organization. Broward’s teachers asked the AFT to take over after it became clear there were problems with Santeramo’s financial management, and the union needed outside help.
John Tarka, the AFT administrator now in charge, said the union is entering an “extraordinarily important election” — one that he is trying to conduct as fairly as possible. To that end, Tarka said the ballots will be counted by an outside third party. He praised the union’s relatively new mail-in voting as “the most secure form of election.”