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Published in Print: March 20, 2002, as Miami-Dade Unions Sue to Safeguard Contracts

Miami-Dade Unions Sue to Safeguard Contracts

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In a move that has inflamed relations between Miami-Dade County school unions and district leaders, union members have filed suit against the school board and the state, challenging a Florida law that they fear will be used to force them to take two unpaid days off.

A coalition of unions representing teachers, maintenance workers, administrators, and school police filed the suit March 6 in Tallahassee. They want a Leon County Circuit Court judge to rule unconstitutional a provision that lets superintendents modify contracts in the event of "financial urgency." As of late last week, no hearing date had been set.

The lawsuit marked the beginning of an angry union campaign against the district, in which unions are denouncing the school board and superintendent on television and on Spanish- language radio, and have mailed fliers decrying the furlough. The push is designed to stop the district from using the furlough to help close an $81 million gap in the current year's budget. State cutbacks caused the shortfall.

The administration, however, appeared to be easing its pressure for the plan in the face of the union opposition. Without actually withdrawing his proposal, Merrett R. Stierheim, the superintendent of the 366,000-student district, said at a March 13 board meeting that he was working on other cuts that would ensure a balanced budget even if the furlough plan is dropped.

Tactics Criticized

But in an earlier interview, Mr. Stierheim lamented the unions' tactics. In proposing the furlough, and promising to pay employees back in cash or time if the budget made that possible, he said he was trying to avoid layoffs and other more painful measures.

"It grieves me tremendously, because I honor and respect teachers and hold them in esteem, and the last thing I wanted was to have a fight in the family," he said.

Mr. Stierheim noted that Pat Tornillo, the president of the 18,000-member United Teachers of Dade, the union leading the fight, shook his hand and agreed to the furlough in January before union members voted on it.

But Annette Katz, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers affiliate, said Mr. Tornillo agreed based on figures that proved to be wrong. The administration had promised, she said, that if the teachers approved the furlough, they would save the district up to $13 million, help put it in the black, and get back the two days.

But several days later, as the unions' ballots on the plan were being counted, union officials learned from district administrators that even if the furlough were approved, the district would still be $5 million in the red, and the two days could not be repaid.

"[Mr. Tornillo] shook hands on something that was a total misrepresentation," Ms. Katz said.

To get a better idea of the district's finances, the union has called for a private audit of the $4.2 billion school budget to see if sufficient savings can be found without tapping employee pay.

Constitutional Questions

Mr. Stierheim said he never promised he could repay the two days, but only that employees could be repaid if last year's budget carryover allowed for it.

The adjusted financial figures came as a surprise to him as well, he added. Just after union members cast their votes on Feb. 5 and 6, he received a report from his finance department indicating that the district's fiscal health had deteriorated further.

Union members narrowly voted down the furlough plan.

Nonetheless, union leaders have targeted the state law to guard the contract. Part of the state's collective bargaining statute, the law lets a superintendent declare "financial urgency," which triggers two weeks of negotiations with a union on contract changes. If talks fail, the superintendent can declare an impasse, said Johnny Brown, the lawyer for the Miami-Dade school board. Mr. Stierheim has invoked both provisions.

As required by state law, district and union officials must work with a state-appointed special master to iron out their differences over contract changes. The first meeting is March 22.

Mr. Brown argues that the law is constitutional, and a necessary tool for district leaders, who are required by state law to close each fiscal year with a balanced budget. "You have to be in a position to address financial emergencies and balance your budget," Mr. Brown said.

Vol. 21, Issue 27, Page 3

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