Monday, October 15, 2018

It’s been a tough few years for Florida teachers. Will a new union leader shake things up?

Top education leaders have spent years pleading, lobbying and rallying at the state capitol, but Tallahassee lawmakers keep making life harder and harder for Florida's public school teachers.

The Florida Education Association advocates for the state's nearly 200,000 educators, but it hasn't been able to fend off these blows to public education:

▪ A charter-friendly law that requires school districts to share its construction dollars with charter schools.

▪ A thrice-denied attempt to sue the state’s voucher-like, tax credit scholarship program because the FEA argues that it siphons public school dollars away to send low-income students to private schools.

▪ A new law that endangers the certification of any local teacher’s union that doesn’t have 50 percent of its membership paying dues.

And teacher salaries that rank among the lowest in the country are now affecting recruiting: There were 4,000 teacher vacancies statewide when the school year started.

The FEA, whose delegates will meet Friday evening in Orlando to choose a new leader, is at a crossroads.

Current FEA President Joanne McCall has had a rough three years in the post. She's being challenged by her own vice president, Fedrick Ingram, the former president of United Teachers of Dade.

joanne mccall
Joanne McCall is president of the statewide teachers union, the Florida Education Association, and calls House Speaker Richard Corcoran ‘really misguided’ on education issues. Steve Bousquet Tampa Bay Times
“I believe that we should’ve taken a much more aggressive approach,” said Ingram. “It is time for us to step out and do things in a bigger way.”

Ingram appears to have momentum from some local unions fed up with FEA's ineffective lobbying at the capitol. Two of its largest local unions, South Florida's UTD and Broward Teachers Union, have openly supported Ingram.

"I'm glad Fed stepped up," said Anna Fusco, BTU's president. "Actually, a lot of us local presidents basically demanded he step up."

ingram
Former United Teachers of Dade President Fedrick Ingram, now currently the vice president of the Florida Education Association, is running against current president Joanne McCall for the top spot in the state teacher’s union. Courtesy photo 

Some complaints lie in how FEA has handled candidate endorsements and contributions.

Counting the FEA, its national chapter and the American Federation of Teachers, $850,000 was donated to Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gwen Graham, an unusual move for a union to make an endorsement in a primary stacked with quality candidates — and a move UTD and BTU unions didn't endorse. Later, McCall announced her support for the Democratic nominee, Andrew Gillum.

Those groups have since donated almost double that amount to Gillum's political action committee.

Fusco took issue with how the union organized during the primary.

"There was no executed plan on getting out the vote and helping out for FEA's endorsed candidate, and there's no plan right now," she said. "Each local is, you know, we know how to do it, working on their own plan."

FEA also endorsed a candidate opposite a local union's pick, another unusual move to go against a local. In 2016, UTD gave $6,000 to Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the Republican candidate in the Florida State Senate District 37 race. Through a spokeswoman, UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats said the union enjoyed a working relationship with Diaz de la Portilla.

Diaz de la Portilla, she said, was pro-union and was not in favor of the decertification bill against teacher's unions.

But FEA instead endorsed the Democratic candidate and donated $150,000 to Jose Javier Rodriguez's campaign.

In a statement, Hernandez-Mats praised Ingram for his leadership while president of UTD.

"After the Florida state legislature's actions to decertify teachers' unions this past session, it is imperative, now more than ever, that educators in Florida have a leader who champions for their profession, bravely and unapologetically," she said. "UTD believes that Fed Ingram is that leader and for this reason we support his candidacy for President of the Florida Educators Association."

BTU specifically took issue with how FEA handled lobbying in Tallahassee after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school shooting, when three Broward educators were killed.

"I felt it needed to be heard in a way … with my rank and file to be presented to the committees," Fusco said. "The response was from the FEA leader and some of her staff: We'd rather you not, we got this."

Fusco said she penned a strongly worded letter to McCall last year complaining about a lack of organization and inclusion of rank and file members.

"She never executes a plan in a timely manner. She doesn't include her local leaders to execute the plan," Fusco said of McCall. "We're always called off at the last minute and left on the backburner."

McCall did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Bryan Bouton, president of Charlotte County's teacher's union, has tweeted about his unwavering support for McCall and her ticket.

"Their record speak[s] volumes, tirelessly campaigning and planning for the election cycles and working to increase the numbers of education-friendly legislators in the Florida House and Senate…," he tweeted, "meeting with and listening (really listening, not just nodding and going on) to every member who reaches out to them…and the strength to keep us all united and lead us against those who would destroy us (and have tried for decades)…"

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