Broward teachers union elections gets testy

In the year and a half since its president was arrested on charges of stealing about $300,000, the Broward Teachers Union has faced a crisis of both cash and confidence.

Progress appears to have been made in rebuilding both. The union has recruited hundreds of new members, and is slowly digging its way out of its budget deficit. But a nasty union election, for which voting is already underway, has now raised all sorts of questions.

At the top of the list: whether the presidential candidates — all three of whom have at least some blemish on their personal finances — are equipped to lead one of the country’s largest unions and restore financial stability. Some candidates also complain that the incumbent leaders are operating without accountability or transparency — an accusation that previously dogged longtime union president Pat Santeramo.

The current election uses a mail-in ballot, which arrived last week in teachers’ mailboxes. Results will be tallied on March 20.

In Santeramo’s case, an outside audit revealed serious financial irregularities, and in mid-2012 the union president was charged with a laundry list of crimes that included racketeering, grand theft, campaign contribution violations, and money laundering. Santeramo, whose criminal case is pending, is accused of using union coffers as his personal piggy bank — at a time when teachers were struggling with a salary freeze. Santeramo denies any wrongdoing.

Current union president Sharon Glickman was elected 16 months ago in the midst of the turmoil.

“I’ve come here, and I’ve picked up the pieces,” Glickman said. “And there’s a lot more pieces that I have to pick up because of the situation.”

Although wounded, the union Glickman leads is still massive. With about 11,000 members, BTU is the nation’s sixth-largest local teachers union. Broward is also the country’s sixth-largest school district.

Running against Glickman are teachers Anna Fusco and Terry Preuss. All three candidates have at least one negative item in their financial history. Glickman, for example, had a federal tax lien in the mid-90s.

Glickman’s husband Jeff said the family tried to contest the tax lien but was unfamiliar with a legal procedure that neither had dealt with previously. “We eventually paid it down within two years,” he said via e-mail.

Glickman’s two challengers have each had multiple financial setbacks. According to court records, both declared bankruptcy — Preuss in 1994 and Fusco in 2012. Records also show Preuss has been sued in the past by two creditors; Fusco has a federal tax lien for multiple years of back taxes.

Preuss said her bankruptcy occurred immediately after Hurricane Andrew hurt a family business. One of the credit lawsuits, she said, happened during a year when her husband had quadruple bypass heart surgery and she was in a car accident. Preuss said she was unfamiliar with the second creditor suit.

“Many teachers are having problems, are having bankruptcies, are behind on things,” Preuss said. “I’m not perfect, but I’m a leader.”

Fusco said her bankruptcy and current debt to the IRS both stem from a commerical cleaning business that she operates. The business fell on hard times during the recession, Fusco said, which prompted the bankruptcy. The IRS debt happened because of mistakes made by a prior accountant, Fusco said.

Fusco said she switched accountants and entered into a five-year payment plan with the IRS, and “has never missed a payment.”

“It was just a mistake, it wasn’t purposeful,” Fusco said.

Fusco is perhaps Glickman’s strongest opponent in what has become an increasingly vicious election. Anonymous letters smearing candidates have been showing up at some Broward schools, and first vice president candidate Kalebra Jacobs-Reed said she’s received harassing phone calls and e-mails.

“It’s kind of, to me, shameful, because we’re all in the same union,” Jacobs-Reed said.

Jacobs-Reed’s candidacy — as a running mate to incumbent Glickman — has become a particular sore subject in the election. Numerous opposition candidates complain that Jacobs-Reed is simply ineligible. For the past couple of years, Jacobs-Reed worked as an administrative employee within the union — most recently as interim director of programs and policy. Such employees are barred from running in union elections, and Jacobs-Reed’s contract states “the employee shall not interfere in the governance ... including, but not limited to, elections.”

Jacobs-Reed in December took a leave of absence from her union job to join Glickman’s campaign. Both she and Glickman insist that step makes her an eligible candidate.

Glickman said Jacobs-Reed’s eligibility was vetted by union’s own elections committee, as well as the legal department of two union parent organizations — the American Federation of Teachers and the Florida Education Association. All found that she’s qualified to run, Glickman said.

“It has been taken care of and it is transparent,” Glickman said.

Transparency in general, Glickman said, has been a key priority. When Santeramo was in charge — he led BTU for more than a decade — some members complained the union functioned essentially as a dictatorship, with the organization’s finances largely a mystery.

During her tenure, Glickman said the union’s constitution has been modified to provide more checks and balances. For example, the president can no longer single-handedly enter into contracts worth more than $2,500.

With Glickman as president, Broward’s teachers received their first raise in four years. The agreement provides an average salary increase of roughly five percent this year, which in actual dollars means an average raise of roughly $2,000.

Yet the contract Glickman negotiated has been received lukewarmly by some teachers. Veteran teachers got a raise, but the amount was less than what was historically given to experienced teachers. Some high school teachers, meanwhile, are still frustrated by scheduling changes implemented by Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie.

Runcie forced high schools to adopt a uniform seven-period schedule in 2012. The change added an additional class (and more workload) for many teachers. The union successfully mounted a legal challenge and Broward has now pledged to pay its high school teachers more than $20 million for the extra unpaid work forced upon them.

But while Glickman supporters would call that $20 million payment a huge victory, her opponents complain that the back pay is stretched out over five years — meaning teachers won’t be fully compensated until 2019.

Glickman has also occasionally stumbled in her role as the public face of the union. Last year, during a back-to-school rally at Sun Life Stadium, Glickman had the honor of sharing the limelight with Miami-Dade union leaders and AFT President Randi Weingarten.

But Glickman goofed when trying to lead the United Teachers of Dade members in a group chant. The chant never got off the ground because instead of chanting “UTD!” Glickman kept yelling “UDT!” into the microphone. Some in the crowd tried to correct her, but Glickman continued chanting the wrong acronym.

Presidential candidate Fusco was once a Glickman supporter, but she says the current president has failed to live up to her promise of having an “open door” policy. Fusco said she knew of one member who had an urgent issue last year, but could never get Glickman on the phone.

“That was the point of where I said, ‘She is not for the members,” Fusco said. “And then it was just all downhill from there.”

Preuss called the experience of campaigning eye-opening — and not in a good way. She said the election process has been manipulated to allow Glickman’s ineligible running mate into the race and the mud-slinging on the campaign trail has gotten downright brutal.

“This feels like I’m in a dark room with 1,000 snakes,” Preuss said. “This is not fun, this has not been pleasant.”