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Published in Print: April 3, 2002, as Controversy Persists After Fla. Union Election

Controversy Persists After Fla. Union Election

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First, the president of the 10,000-member Broward Teachers Union in Florida was sent to federal prison for soliciting a teenage girl on the Internet from union headquarters. Now, allegations have emerged that both a smear campaign and election fraud took place during the race to replace him.

Union members in the 250,000-student Broward County district overwhelmingly choose interim President Patrick A. Santeramo to lead their organization in a contentious, weeklong election that ended at 2 a.m. on March 24.

But one of Mr. Santeramo's opponents, Barry A. Silver, an English teacher at Coral Springs High School near Fort Lauderdale, said he may contest the election. He charges that his opponent's victory came only after Mr. Santeramo tried to destroy the reputations of his competitors' and altered election procedures to his advantage. "This stinks of impropriety," Mr. Silver said last week. "If you want to beat me, put out a better platform."

Under union bylaws, Mr. Silver has 15 days to file a complaint with the organization, said Al Russell, the acting election chairman for the union.

Mr. Santeramo, who characterized the election as divisive, denies such allegations. "There wasn't anything unfair about this," he declared last week.

Mr. Santeramo said he did air public records that may have been embarrassing for both Mr. Silver and another presidential candidate, Michael Todd, during the race. But he said he did so because he believed members had a right to know the information.

Mr. Silver was suspended for 10 days in 1996 for what school district officials called "inappropriate contact with students" while teaching at Olsen Middle School in Dania Beach.

Mr. Todd, who teaches adult students with profound disabilities at the Wingate Oaks Center in Fort Lauderdale, was reprimanded in 1998 for not protecting his students from harm, according to school district documents. Those documents cite one student sticking a knife in his own mouth.

The election in Florida is one of three hotly contested union races scheduled this spring. Teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District will go to the polls to vote for president in mid-April; their colleagues in Baltimore will follow suit next month.

Closing a Chapter?

The Broward Teachers Union election came eight months after the arrest of former President Tony Gentile, who led the organization for 23 years. Mr. Gentile resigned in October and was later convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. Mr. Santeramo, who served as vice president for nine years, stepped into the role of interim president and led the merged National Education Association-American Federation of Teachers affiliate through a contract buyout with his old boss. Mr. Santeramo went on to help the union negotiate a new contract with the district.

Members may have remembered those efforts at the polls.

Of the nearly 6,200 votes cast, 62 percent went to Mr. Santeramo. Mr. Silver received 31 percent, while Mr. Todd garnered 7 percent of the vote.

A vice president, secretary-treasurer, and five executive board members were also chosen.

"The election has actually enabled the union to be able to finally close one chapter of our history and start a new one," Mr. Santeramo said.

That's not how Mr. Silver sees it. He contends Mr. Santeramo is continuing a policy of politics as usual, as evidenced by his use of his opponents' records during the campaign. Mr. Silver said Mr. Santeramo notified members of his past suspension three days before voting started on March 12.

The educator told The Miami Herald that he was innocent of the charges and had received poor representation from the teachers' union in the case. In an interview with Education Week, he declined, on the advice of his lawyer, to elaborate on the incident that led to his punishment.

Moving On

Mr. Silver also charges that Mr. Santeramo did not provide his campaign with access to member records, as is required by union policy. In addition, Mr. Silver alleges that his opponent made it impossible for him to meet with many voters and violated several other election procedures.

Mr. Santeramo said he circulated information about his opponents' backgrounds because he thought the matters could have caused trouble for the union should one of them have been elected. He said the other allegations were groundless. "That kind of thing could be extremely damaging to the union to have a president with those kinds of things in his file," he said of the records.

The elections committee did void ballots from five schools, which represented the votes of 100 to 200 members, said Mr. Russell, the election chairman. Election protocol had been violated at those sites, he said.

Meanwhile, some teachers in Broward County bemoan the thought of a second election should Mr. Silver proceed with an appeal and prevail.

Union steward Debbie Siegelaud said she believed the interim president's decision to disclose the records of Mr. Silver and Mr. Todd was "unprofessional," but she added that she would not welcome another election.

"There are too many issues in Broward County for us to be concerned with people being vindictive," said the teacher, who works at Margate Middle School in Margate, Fla. "I have 37 kids in my class with so many exceptionalities and so many problems. We need to concentrate on that."

Vol. 21, Issue 29, Page 3

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