Once considered among the most powerful unions in the southeastern United States before debt incurred under Tornillo — who siphoned millions to furnish a lavish lifestyle — nearly crippled the organization, the strength of the union is debatable. Still, observers and legislators say UTD remains a loud voice on education issues locally and in Tallahassee, albeit in a Republican-controlled Legislature, and even with declining membership.
“They aren’t the NRA, but they still have some say,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. “They’re probably one of the most powerful unions up here.”
Four outsiders say that power should be given to someone outside Aronowitz’s inner circle. They include former state Rep. James Bush III, Miami activist Ceresta Smith, first-grade teacher Kimberly Roberts and Blanca Rosa Rodriguez.
Bush, 57, touts his decade of experience in Tallahassee as a Democratic legislator during the 1990s, during which he spoke out against then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s school vouchers program, calling its 1999 passing a “funeral for public education.” The longtime physical education teacher at Morningside K-8 Center said the union needs more transparency and accountability, and more healthcare security.
“Teachers are feeling like they can’t afford to get sick,” he said.
Robinson, a Dr. Edward L. Whigham Elementary teacher who is running independently, said UTD has been “neutered” and teachers are under attack.
“I don’t think the union’s fractured,” said Robinson, 44. “But we need a change, and it can’t continue down this road.”
Smith, who has been involved in a national movement against high-stakes testing, speaks about elevating the union’s profile nationally. The longtime union steward and language arts teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High says the union would be more inclusive to members, and less chummy with Carvalho under her tutelage — a common theme among candidates.
“That’s been a major issue and a major problem,” said Smith, 59.
Rosa Rodriguez did not attend the candidate’s forum and could not be reached for comment.
More than two dozen leadership positions will be chosen during the election, which this year will be conducted by Scantron rather than online ballot, a process that has been challenged legally, said union spokesman Michael Molnar. The 18,000 bargaining unit members of the union who pay dues will vote in the internal election.
In all races, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held in March. Otherwise, elected members will need to get busy. The Florida legislative session begins next month.