Teaching Profession

Miami-Dade Unions Sue to Safeguard Contracts

By Catherine Gewertz — March 20, 2002 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Miami-Dade Unions Sue to Safeguard Contracts


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Teachers Work 50-Plus Hours a Week—And Other Findings From a New Survey on Teacher Pay
Planning, preparation, and other duties stretch teachers' working hours long past what's in their contracts.
5 min read
Elementary teacher, working at her desk in an empty classroom.
Teaching Profession From Our Research Center How Many Teachers Work in Their Hometown? Here's the Latest Data
New survey data shows that many teachers stay close to home, but do they want to?
1 min read
Illustration of a 3D map with arrows going all over the states.
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words 'I Was Not Done': How Politics Drove This Teacher of the Year Out of the Classroom
Karen Lauritzen was accused of being a pro-LGBTQ+ activist. The consequences derailed her career.
6 min read
Karen Lauritzen stands for a portrait on the Millikin University Campus in Decatur, Ill., on August 30, 2023. Idaho’s Teacher of the Year moved to Illinois for a new job due to right-wing harassment over her support of the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter.
Karen Lauritzen stands for a portrait on the Millikin University Campus in Decatur, Ill., on August 30, 2023. Laurizen, Idaho’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, moved to Illinois for a new job due to harassment over her support of the LGBTQ+ community and Black Lives Matter.
Neeta R. Satam for Education Week
Teaching Profession Reported Essay Public Schools Rely on Underpaid Female Labor. It’s Not Sustainable
Women now have more career options. Is that why they are leaving the teaching profession?
9 min read
Illustration of contemporary teacher looking at a line-up of mostly female teachers through the history of public education in the United States.
Traci Debarko for Education Week