In a few days, thousands will cast secret ballots in an election that could go largely unnoticed outside Miami-Dade schools despite its implications on the future of education locally and statewide.
The United Teachers of Dade will choose new leaders Feb. 19. And with standardized testing, charter schools and teacher evaluations as polarizing as ever, much is at stake both for the largest teachers union in the state and Miami-Dade’s 350,000 public school students.
Making the election more important, yet unpredictable: longtime President Karen Aronowitz is stepping down, guaranteeing new leadership for a union that has had just two presidents in half a century. That means the relationship between UTD and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who Aronowitz once said “might be the best superintendent in the nation,” will change, too.
“It’s a transformational election,” said Brian Peterson, a Florida International University assistant professor of history who follows labor unions and education. “It’s really important. If we do this right, we’ll have a better education system.”
The looming power vacuum — and $134,000 president’s salary — has drawn six candidates from four slates and a circus atmosphere of rumors, robo-calls and push polls. Meanwhile, there is plenty of talk of division as Aronowitz’s two top lieutenants campaign for her job, critics contest contract after contract, and a 2-year-old lawsuit challenging the results of the last election continues in circuit court.
Aronowitz, whose last day as president will be in May, has backed Secretary/Treasurer Fedrick Ingram.
Ingram, 39, was band director at Miami Carol City Senior High and teacher of the year before taking his elected post at the union. He says he respects Aronowitz and her leadership after the 2003 arrest of union boss Pat Tornillo and during the recent recession, but is “very different” and wants to improve compensation by being “more aggressive.”
He also talks about creating teacher-led schools in which teachers can take the reins of school leadership and reap administrators’ pay while remaining in the classroom.
“We want to make the administrator obsolete,” he said during a candidate forum at Miami Jackson Senior High.
Other candidates criticize union leadership for negotiating what they see as a broken pay scale, expensive healthcare costs and recent raises that averaged about 3 percent after years of static pay. During the sparsely attended forum, during which the union forbid recordings, pictures and written transcripts, they said Aronowitz has been secretive and stifled differing opinions.
First Vice President Artie Leichner, who is running against Ingram, says the union’s most glaring need is more field officers. He said anger over the recent contract has a lot to do with a Florida Supreme Court decision last month forcing teachers to pay 3 percent of their pay to their pensions and a coinciding lapse of a federal payroll tax break.
“People come home with less money now than before they got their raise. It makes people feel demeaned and diminished because they’re not treated like professionals,” he said. “We’re fractured because there’s a lot of angry people.”
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.