School & District Management

Unrest Besets Scandal-Scarred Dade Union

By Vaishali Honawar — February 13, 2007 6 min read
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Since taking over the troubled United Teachers of Dade two years ago, President Karen Aronowitz has raised membership numbers to a record high of 18,000 and negotiated a brand-new contract. But support for her leadership within the union has splintered to the point where she faces four challengers in elections next week.

Union officials credit Ms. Aronowitz for nursing the local in Miami-Dade County, Fla., through a dark period. Members of the union chose her as their first elected leader after it was discovered that longtime President Pat L. Tornillo Jr. and two other top officers had stolen more than $3 million from union coffers. With the thefts, a $13 million mortgage on a new headquarters, and a sharp decline in membership, Mr. Tornillo left behind a union that was nearly insolvent.

The American Federation of Teachers took over the union shortly after the scandal broke, bringing in Mark Richard, a labor lawyer and the president of the United Faculty of Miami-Dade Community College, to repair the damage. The union has since bounced back, officials say. “On the political front, the financial front, the membership front, and on contract negotiations, they have done extremely well,” said Mr. Richard, who ran the UTD from 2003 to 2005.

The AFT, one of the two national unions with which the local is affiliated, gave Ms. Aronowitz its stamp of approval in the November 2006 issue of its magazine, American Teacher. The article lauded Ms. Aronowitz and her team for their “new energy and leadership” and for making “sure the union finances are open and transparent,” among other achievements.

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Not everyone is singing her praises, however, including several union members who say they are unhappy over a three-year contract she negotiated with the district in November. Ms. Aronowitz, they maintain, is too friendly with the administration led by Superintendent Rudy Crew to stand up for educator rights.

“There is no distinction between the school board and the superintendent’s agenda and Karen’s platform,” charged Shawn Beightol, a chemistry teacher at Krop High School and one of the candidates opposing Ms. Aronowitz in the Feb. 21 election.

Though some of the complaints sound like those that routinely arise during election campaigns, others may be the product of memories from the Tornillo scandal, which are fresh enough to breed dissatisfaction and, perhaps, mistrust. Some members, for example, point to financial improprieties that have occurred on Ms. Aronowitz’s watch. They also accuse her of acting too late on important issues, such as Florida’s merit-pay plan for teachers.

Teachers, they say, are leaving the county because of poor salaries and the high cost of living in Dade County, and warn that an exodus will ensue unless members believe they have a union leader who will stand up for them.

“[Teachers] are leaving in droves. Lots of people are making plans to leave,” said teacher Patrenia Dozier Washington of Ojus Elementary, another candidate for president. “They have to provide for their families.”

Contract at Issue

Ms. Aronowitz counters that she worked hard to get a fair contract. “It is great to say teachers deserve a raise of $7,000,” she said, “but the dollars are not here.”

The contract, which followed nine months of negotiations and teacher protests, gives teachers immediate raises of between 2 percent and 6 percent. Starting salaries will increase by $2,000 in the first year, and salaries for the most experienced teachers will rise to $68,225 in the third year.

It is the first time in the Miami union’s history, Ms. Aronowitz said, that salary schedules have been set for three years. In the past, the local negotiated each year for raises.

But opponents say the contract gives away more than it delivers. For instance, it requires teachers to host two additional parent-conference nights and attend two schoolwide professional-development days during the school year. They also cannot transfer to another school during the year.

Still, the fact that the contract was ratified by 80 percent of the members who voted could be seen as a good sign for Ms. Aronowitz.

Often described as “soft-spoken,” Ms. Aronowitz is painted by some opponents as not aggressive enough to be the union president.

“When she was elected, I was quoted as saying she was not a strong leader and not tough, and I am afraid my earlier fear came to pass,” Mr. Beightol said. “I don’t see her as being strong for the teachers or support staff.”

But the former English teacher says she is no pushover. “I am all about union democracy and people taking potshots at me. . . . But I am not Khruschev. I am not going to take out my shoe and bang it on the table,” she said.

Settling Debts

When Ms. Aronowitz won by more than 400 votes over Shirley Johnson, the union’s secretary-treasurer under Mr. Tornillo, the union’s toughest days were receding, but not past.

Mr. Richard, the AFT appointee, had negotiated two contracts and recruited a record numbers of members before handing over the local to Ms. Aronowitz.

Ms. Aronowitz said she has added her own victories. The union, she says, was critical in fighting off an effort by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush to rescind an amendment that limits class sizes.

The local affiliate, which owed millions to the parent union, soon expects to settle all those outstanding debts with funds from the sale of a piece of property it owns. United Teachers of Dade repaid some of that debt in 2004, when it sold for $22 million the headquarters building acquired by Mr. Tornillo.

An independent financial audit last year gave the UTD a clean bill of health.

But the union hasn’t put controversy entirely behind. Last year, its secretary-treasurer, Pamela Sturrup, was fired on charges of dereliction of duty after she accused union officers of signing a promissory note without her or the executive board’s knowledge. Mr. Richard at the time told members that Ms. Aronowitz was directed to sign the promissory note by the AFT.

Performance-Pay Criticism

Now, as the election approaches, Ms. Aronowitz is under scrutiny for her handling of a state-legislated performance-pay plan that many teachers oppose.

The union in December filed a lawsuit against the Special Teachers Are Rewarded, or STAR, program, which gives bonuses to the top 25 percent of teachers who raise student test scores. Union officials say the plan creates unhealthy competition among teachers, and rewards only a small number. The bonuses are also based largely on state test results.

“STAR is the worst [performance-pay] system I have ever seen,” said Mr. Richard, who helped put together the lawsuit.

The 350,000-student Miami-Dade district, however, would lose $19.6 million in state funds for the program if it does not accept the plan before a March 1 deadline.

Ron Beasley, a retired U.S. Army sergeant and a teacher at North Miami Senior High School, describes the STAR program as a “lose-lose situation.” But, he added, something better could have been conceived had Ms. Aronowitz weighed in on the plan while it was being worked out by the district, instead of waiting until last month to file a lawsuit.

A strong supporter of Ms. Aronowitz when she ran for president in 2004, he is now running to unseat her. He said he would be happy to see a new face at the helm—even if it is someone other than himself.

“We require [a leader who is] open, receptive, diligent, and responsive to what the membership wants and needs,” Mr. Beasley said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Unrest Besets Scandal-Scarred Dade Union

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