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Broward teachers union faces long road to rebuild trust

In the coming months, as the criminal case against former Broward Teachers Union President Pat Santeramo moves forward, schools across the county will reopen, and teachers will resume working.

Will the BTU be able to adequately represent them?

Regardless of what happens to Santeramo in court, the BTU’s competency and financial stability are being seriously questioned.

Santeramo is accused of stealing about $300,000 from union coffers, as well as orchestrating a series of illegal campaign contributions using union funds. After turning himself in to authorities on Tuesday, Santeramo, who denies wrongdoing, bonded out of jail on Friday while awaiting trial.

Even before the arrest, the BTU was in a state of upheaval. Last summer, questions about Santeramo’s financial dealings led a small contingent of union executive board members to request that the union’s national parent organizations step in. What followed was a scathing American Federation of Teachers audit and Santeramo resigning under pressure in December.

For Broward teachers, now begins the difficult period of rebuilding.

“It can’t get worse — that’s good,” said Donna Shubert, a kindergarten teacher and union steward at McNab Elementary School in Pompano Beach. “So I’m hoping it will just get better.”

Shubert, however, is resistant to any increase in annual dues (which now cost $600) as a way of shoring up BTU’s budget. The possibility of such an increase has been raised.

“I don’t care if they sell pencils on the street corner” to raise money, Shubert said. “The union really needs to produce before they ask for any more money.”

To the south, the past experience of United Teachers of Dade offers something of a road map. The Miami-Dade teachers’ union less than a decade ago was also leaderless and the subject of scandal: A public corruption task force found that longtime UTD President Pat Tornillo charged the organization for up to $650,000 worth of cruises, Caribbean vacation villas, and expensive restaurants. Tornillo in 2003 agreed to a plea deal that carried a two-year prison sentence.

UTD at first struggled financially and lost a significant chunk of its membership, said current union President Karen Aronowitz.

“People left out of disappointment, and I understand that,” Aronowitz said. She added, though, that membership has since rebounded to its highest numbers ever, and internal financial reforms led to a series of clean audits.

“It took a solid year and a half for people to see, yes, this was real,” Aronowitz said of UTD’s comeback.

Not only did both South Florida teachers’ unions endure leadership scandals, but both also required outside oversight to get back on their feet — BTU is now under the authority of its parent organization, just as UTD once was. That process can at first accelerate financial accounting reforms (the local unions have no right to refuse), but it’s hardly foolproof. John Tarka, the AFT administrator now running the BTU, has been criticized for authorizing a $174,000 payout to Santeramo as the union leader was stepping down. The money was supposed to compensate Santeramo for accrued sick and vacation time, but police say Santeramo illegally inflated the payout with a fraudulent memo that Tarka and his leadership team accepted as real.

That issue aside, Tarka points to a laundry list of financial safeguards that have been implemented since he took the reins in November: two signatures are now required for every check that’s written; monthly financial reports are now posted online; and only one union-issued credit card is allowed, and it is held by the AFT-appointed financial director.

Tarka says there’s “no magic bullet” and freely admits “we have more work to do,” but he also notes that BTU membership has stayed strong during this chaotic time. In the last six months, the roughly 11,000-member union has actually gained 140 members.

Still, there is a tangible frustration among the rank-and-file. Broward’s teachers haven’t had a raise in four years, and the current round of contract negotiations (being conducted under Tarka’s leadership) could go a long way toward either convincing teachers of the union’s importance, or cementing their displeasure.

The union’s choice for its new president — an election is planned for later this year — will also signal how well-prepared the BTU is for Tarka’s November departure.

Mark Bonfanti, a Tallahassee-based attorney who represents management in labor and employment matters, said keeping those associated with past criminal acts could hamper the union’s recovery.

“People want everyone gone, and it’s surprising to me that people would stick around,” Bonfanti said.

Bonfanti was supportive of the financial reforms that BTU is implementing, but he said many are the sort of common safeguards that should be taken for granted.

“There’s certain things on that list that I would say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this didn’t happen before?’ ” Bonfanti said.