Pembroke Pines charter schools may be privatized under new plan

A nasty contract dispute between the Broward Teachers Union and Pembroke Pines city leaders now threatens to completely dismantle the highly-successful Pines charter schools, as the city has unexpectedly released a privatization plan that could lead to hundreds of teachers losing their jobs.

“It would be terrible for them to do this,” said Pines charter parent Linda Lougedo. “I’m, like, in shock.”

Pines leaders have for months been warning that the city’s seven-school charter system — despite years of “A” ratings from the state — was struggling financially. In recent weeks, the city asked its teachers, who are represented by BTU, to accept a pay cut that would cause them to be paid slightly less than teachers who work for the much-larger Broward School District. The change would be a reversal of fortune for Pines charter teachers, who in recent years have been paid higher wages than their Broward system counterparts.

Pines Mayor Frank Ortis said Monday the pay cuts, if the union agrees, would be short-term, with the hope that higher wages could be restored in a couple of years, when the charters are on stronger financial footing.

“I would commit that when we got the money, we would definitely pay them, without a doubt,” Ortis said.

But leaders of the teachers’ union have refused to go along with the salary reductions. Pines city officials responded with a dramatic (and highly disruptive) plan: partnering with Charter Schools, USA, a Fort Lauderdale-based firm that is one of the nation’s largest for-profit charter school companies.

It’s possible the privatization threat is merely the latest hardball negotiation tactic to force Pines teachers to accept pay cuts.

By bringing in a private operator, the city essentially would be creating a legal way to renege on its promises: Pines charters would be freed from their salary obligations under the existing teachers union contract. Ortis said he is opposed to the loss of control that privatization would mean, and he favors the city declaring “financial urgency” – another legal tactic that would nullify the union contract.

Should Pines opt for the more-controversial privatization route, it will force Pines charter school teachers to reapply for their jobs, and there is no guarantee that any of the 300-plus teachers who work there will be retained. For those who are kept on-board, it’s likely that their salaries will keep dropping in future years, as private charter operators tend to pay teachers significantly less than public school districts.

Charter Schools, USA did not return a call Monday seeking comment.

Pines City Manager Charles Dodge, who also oversees the city’s charter schools, handpicked the company through a no-bid contract. That fact — along with the city commission vote being scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon when many parents will be at work — has fueled criticism that the city is acting without transparency.

Pines charter parent Jody Giraldo said he moved to the suburban city from Miami about 14 years ago, and always valued its small-town government feel. But he said the “back door deals” being made to overhaul his child’s school left him feeling disenchanted.

Ortis said the Wednesday vote was scheduled for 3:30 p.m. not to avoid scrutiny, but because it’s anticipated there will be many members of the public who want to speak, and the earlier start makes it easier to accommodate everyone.

Asked about the no-bid selection process, Ortis noted that was the city manager’s doing. Dodge did not return a call for comment Monday.

The city manager, did, however send a mass email Monday that sought to reassure parents. Dodge wrote that the schools were struggling to close a $2.1 million deficit, and he blasted the teachers union for insisting on more teacher raises as opposed to trying to find a workable budget solution.

Dodge’s email downplayed the massive staff turnover that’s expected if Charter Schools, USA is brought in. The city manager noted that the same school principals and vice-principals will remain, and “teachers will have the opportunity to be re-employed by this new organization.”

Teachers and staff at the seven schools, which together serve more than 5,600 students, were reluctant to comment publicly on Monday — mindful that their future employment with the city already is hanging by a thread. When it comes to the source of the charters’ overall budget problems, Pines city leaders have blamed years of cuts to state education funding, along with the refusal of Broward’s school district to share capital-improvement dollars that it receives through local property taxes.

It’s unclear, however, why Pines leaders, in previous years, agreed to teacher pay contracts that were more generous that what the city could arguably afford. And although Broward’s school district has indeed refused to share its capital-improvement dollars, the district legally doesn’t have to — when Pines sued to force that money to be shared, the city lost.

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