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Published in Print: May 7, 2003, as Authorities Raid Teachers' Union in Miami-Dade

Authorities Raid Teachers' Union in Miami-Dade

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The president of the nation's fourth-largest local teachers' union has taken a leave of absence, following a raid by federal and local authorities on the United Teachers of Dade's offices last week.

Anonymous sources told a Miami newspaper that law-enforcement officials were investigating allegations of embezzlement, but that report had yet to be confirmed late last week by either the FBI or Miami-Dade County's Public Corruption Task Force. Both agencies are looking into allegations of unspecified wrongdoing.

Pat L. Tornillo, who has run the 16,000-member union for 40 years and is considered a grandfather of the "new unionism" movement, "agreed to take a leave of absence pending the outcome of the investigation," Shirley B. Johnson, the union's acting president, said on April 30, the day after the raid was carried out.

Mr. Tornillo could not be reached for comment last week, but he was quoted as telling The Miami Herald: "I don't want anything to impede the ability of [the United Teachers of Dade] to continue to represent teachers and children in Dade County. I don't want any distractions from that."

Union officials, who were already contending with "significant financial instability" and declining membership, asked their two parent organizations, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, to parachute into Miami and provide help, said Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the AFT. The two unions merged in Florida in 2000.

The AFT has been working with the UTD by telephone for the past six months to iron out fiscal difficulties, Mr. Wohl said.

The situation grew so dire last week that the Miami-Dade County school board froze $540,000 in union dues owed to the UTD in order to make a payment on the union's $1.5 million loan from the Bank of America. (As is customary, the school district withholds union dues from teachers' paychecks.)

The school board for the 365,000-student district decided to take the action after another bank, the American Bank and Trust in Lake Wales, Fla., called in a $1 million union loan earlier in the week, said Mayco Villafaña, a spokesman for the board.

Under a deal brokered by the board and the union, defaulted loans can be repaid with union dues gathered from members by the school board.

The union made a payment to American Bank late last week, clearing up that situation, said Annette Katz, a union spokeswoman.

The problem with Bank of America remained unresolved, however, late last week.

"This is a temporary glitch. We're working it out," Ms. Katz said.

Parental Help

The UTD's executive board agreed to place the local union in a "voluntary administratorship" with the AFT, she said. Such a decision means that the parent organizations will provide guidance to local union leaders, though the local officials will continue to lead.

The NEA will also be involved in helping out the UTD, but it has not yet been decided to what degree, said Denise Cardinal, a spokeswoman for the nation's largest union.

Some local union members weren't sure what to think about the events of the week.

"I'm reserving my opinion until there is more information," said Janis Klein-Young, a high school art teacher at Miami Douglas MacArthur Senior High School South and a UTD member for 28 years. Mr. Tornillo has a "fabulous reputation" in Florida and elsewhere as a well-informed, staunch advocate for education, she said.

Sealed Warrant

Little was known last week about the reasons behind the raid.

"It is a sealed search warrant," said Judy Orihuela, an FBI spokeswoman. "All I can tell you is that the investigation is continuing. The goal is always to arrest somebody and prosecute somebody."

Ms. Katz said she knew nothing about the search until arriving at work on April 29.

"It was quite the experience," she said, noting that 20 FBI agents had combed through files from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. "We were as surprised as anyone."

All the while, union staff members went about their daily routines, Ms. Katz said, such as taking phone calls from members.

The union is cooperating with the authorities and will continue to do so, she added.

The local also tried to assure its members that service would be uninterrupted.

"It is important to understand that membership dues, benefits, and services are in no way affected by this investigation, and no one has been arrested or charged with any wrongdoing," said Ms. Johnson, the acting president. "Despite these distractions, UTD staff members remain determined to provide the best services possible for our members."

Mr. Tornillo handed over the union's day-to-day operations to Ms. Johnson about a year ago, when he decided to spend more time lobbying state lawmakers in Tallahassee, Ms. Katz said.

The raid is the second black eye for the AFT, a member of the AFL-CIO, this year. The national organization took over the Washington Teachers Union this past winter following a probe into financial matters involving the District of Columbia local. ("Union Local Loses Control of Operations," Jan. 29, 2003.)

Top officials of the WTU—including former President Barbara Bullock—allegedly embezzled more than $5 million from union coffers from 1995 until last fall. Two people have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the probe. ("Ex-Union President's 'Stylist' Pleads Guilty in Theft Probe," April 23, 2003.)

The news in Florida broke one day before a federal judge berated AFT officials for not paying closer attention to the finances of the Washington Teachers Union, whose problems have also generated a civil lawsuit brought by members. AFT officials, however, say it is not their responsibility to watch over the financial operations of every affiliate in the nation.

"Overseeing the finances of 2,600 locals would be both absurd and a burden we weren't meant to do or could do," Mr. Wohl said.

Among the Pioneers

The news from Miami-Dade, meanwhile, had union leaders around the country saying that they, too, were scratching their heads.

"I don't know to what extent this is real and to what extent this is random," said Adam Urbanski, the president of the 3,800-member Rochester Teachers Union in New York who has worked with Mr. Tornillo for years on various issues. "A lot of us who came into teachers' unions as rookies viewed Pat Tornillo as a model."

The UTD has long been considered one of the nation's most progressive teachers' unions, Mr. Urbanski said, and Mr. Tornillo is perceived as one of the first union leaders to embrace a philosophy that goes beyond economic issues.

"They were 'country' when 'country' wasn't cool," Mr. Urbanski said of the Miami local. The UTD, for instance, was a founding member of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a group of like-minded organizations that pursue improvements to teaching and learning in addition to the bread-and-butter issues of salaries and benefits.

Miami-Dade's teacher leaders "pioneered collective bargaining along with [the union in] New Orleans in the Deep South," said Tom Mooney, the president of the 20,000-member Ohio Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate. "They practiced site-based management, decentralization, partnered with the district to bring about more school choice ... and did a tremendous amount of good work at the state level ... to reduce class size and shape accountability systems."

Some speculate that the raid was prompted by local detractors who want to ruin the union's reputation or further stall contract negotiations. Union officials are asking for salary increases for teachers this year.

"We're getting beat down in Dade County, and the man that's been relentless in helping us ... is being brought down," said Patrenia Dozier-Washington, a union steward and 1st grade teacher at Ojus Elementary School. "This could be a distraction to cause us to drop membership and weaken our power."

Still other union members welcomed the intervention of the national unions to provide oversight.

"This represents a big opportunity for teachers," said Shawn Beightol, a former union steward who quit the organization last year after he decided that some of its actions were questionable.

"We were not receiving the kind of representation we've needed," said the chemistry teacher at Michael Krop Senior High School. "There is a sigh of relief among teachers."

Vol. 22, Issue 34, Pages 1,17

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