With bad news as a backdrop, negotiations resume between Broward and its school teachers

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org

Broward Teachers Union President Pat Santeramo

Smarting from criticism, the Broward public schools administration and the teachers union have returned to the bargaining table to hammer out a contract and salvage $52 million in state and federal money.

“We’ll see if we can get on the same page,” Pat Santeramo, Broward Teachers Union President said. “We are willing to cooperate.”

Hostilities among the negotiating parties have mounted for years while both sides have sustained blows that raised doubts about competence.

Talks resumed last week after being on hold since late April. In May, the district had declared an impasse in negotiations.

Agreements between the union and the district on the federal and state funds “should have happened a long time ago,” community activist and watchdog Charlotte Greenbarg said. “This is a lot of money. Both sides have to realize there’s a financial emergency, due, in part, to self-inflicted wounds.”

A statewide grand jury in February criticized the management and operations of the School Board and administration. Meanwhile, the political website BrowardBeat.com reported last week that the BTU has agreed to let its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, review a $1.3 million drop in local union funds and assets. The declines, attributed to declining membership, had brought grumbles from BTU board members about their own management team.

The union hopes to smooth relations internally and with the school administration, while seeking to tap $31 million in federal “Race to the Top” incentive dollars awarded for teacher performance and another $21 million in state grants. The union and the district must agree on how that money will be apportioned.

That federal money “is a key component” in reopening talks because “it’s money for salaries,” Santeramo said. It is likely also the only source for new salary funds given the poor economy and the state’s cut in education funding during the past five years.

The union’s declining revenues, a history of bleak contract talks and the grab for outside money paint the backdrop to what’s now happening, although Santeramo said they were not directly related.

Santeramo said the drop in BTU funds stems from dues hikes imposed on local affiliates by the AFT. He said money to the state and national bodies went up without increases to local membership fees to cover the additional expenses.

He added there had been no misappropriation of BTU funds

“I told the AFT we have nothing to hide,” said Santeramo, adding the BTU has reduced staff salaries, including his own four field representatives were laid off.

According to district records, the BTU had 16,668 teachers and other members as of March 31. About 2,500 eligible workers have not joined the union or paid dues. According BrowardBeat.com, the union’s net assets dropped $1.3 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010 – from $5 million to $3.7 million amid declining membership.

Interim Superintendent Donnie Carter, who took over after Jim Notter’s June 30 retirement, did not respond to requests for comment.

Broward, the sixth largest school district in the nation, is behind Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the nation, in dealing with its teachers. Miami-Dade reached an agreement in May with the United Teachers of Dade on local Race to the Top performance pay – and teachers there are not facing layoffs. Palm Beach managed a $500 raise and voters approved an additional property tax for salaries for arts teachers.

In comparison, Broward teachers, who have been without a pay raise for three years, are faced with the prospect of about 1,800 layoffs. The teachers are among 2,400 employees targeted for layoff as part of the district’s effort to cut $171 million from its projected $2.9 billion budget for 2011-2012.

Broward’s application for federal Race to the Top performance pay is pending before the state; it has until Sept. 30 to reach agreement with the BTU on a plan that could bring $29.7 million in performance pay to teachers over the upcoming three years. The district received $6 million from the state for planning.

The state has earmarked an additional $21 million in grants to pay Broward teachers working at low performing school, for development of a merit evaluation plan that mirrors provisions of the Race to the Top and for classroom technology. The grants require union agreement.

Broward’s chances for completing agreements on the federal and state funding programs dimmed when the district declared an impasse in negotiations in May, especially because of the hostility between Santeramo and then superintendent Notter.

But with Notter’s retirement, the door reopened to talks.

Santeramo said he contacted school board members and interim superintendent Carter about working to get a deal on the labor contract that would include agreements on Race to the Top and the state grants.

Holding back on the Race to the Top agreement was a “bargaining chip” in order to get a new labor agreement, Santeramo said. The district, he added, now wants agreement on both to remain competitive with Miami-Dade and Palm Beach

At the resumption of bargaining last Thursday, newly formed bargaining teams for both sides reviewed the status of bargaining proposals, and agreed to narrow the issues in dispute at upcoming sessions, 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26 and 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 2.

Activist Greenbarg noted it will take a lot more than agreements on a labor contract and the federal and state funds to repair the district’s damaged image. But, she added,”it won’t hurt” if they reach accord.

.