The PBC teachers union tried to disqualify half of its presidential candidates

The campaign to elect the Palm Beach County teachers union’s next leader has been upended by union officials’ attempts to disqualify half of the eight candidates, moves that prompted appeals, reversals and eventually a delay of the election.

Four candidates for teachers union president were blocked from running, then restored. Clockwise from top left: Paulette Ford, Donald Persson, Kevin Williams, and Justin Katz.

In the past two months, four of the eight teachers vying to be the union’s president were removed from the race for alleged violations of campaign or eligibility rules.

In each case, the union, the Classroom Teachers Association, reversed the decision after being admonished by state union leaders, who concluded that the removals were either baseless, disproportionate or potential violations of federal guidelines themselves.

In recommending that the candidates be restored, state union leaders called the CTA’s actions “inappropriate and excessive.”

All candidates are now back on the ballot. But the controversy has prompted accusations that the moves were an attempt to eliminate outsiders challenging candidates who are already part of the union’s leadership team.

The election, once scheduled to be completed by the end of this week, has been pushed back nearly a month so all candidates will have time to campaign. Teachers will begin receiving ballots on March 22 and must submit them by April 7, with the results expected to be announced by April 13.

The leader who emerges will be responsible for a bargaining unit charged with negotiating salaries and benefits and representing the interests of the county school district’s roughly 12,000 teachers.

Candidate axed for not paying dues while on leave

The weeks of tumult have drawn rueful comparisons to the union’s last presidential election in 2014, a problem-plagued, four-month slog that produced three separate votes with three different results and required the state union to step in to oversee the operation while a leader was chosen.

After losing in the first two votes in that campaign, Kathi Gundlach won the third to claim the presidency.

CTA President Kathi Gundlach

This go-around, Gundlach and other top union leaders have sought to impose a strict zero-tolerance policy regarding election missteps.

The first candidate to be blocked from running was Park Vista High School teacher Justin Katz.

In January, union leaders removed him from the ballot on the grounds that his dues lapsed during a leave of absence that he said he took to care for his dying grandmother.

Union rules require presidential candidates to be an “active member who has been in continuous good standing for two consecutive years.” The rule, however, makes an exception for “School Board-approved leaves.”

The union reversed its decision to block Katz on Feb. 6, after the state union, the Florida Education Association, called his removal baseless, saying that the county union did not have “sufficient evidence to support their position” that failing to pay dues during an approved leave merited disqualification.

Three candidates removed over email problems

The following week, union leaders disqualified two more candidates: teachers Paulette Ford and Kevin Williams.

Each teacher had violated a union rule against sending campaign emails to teachers’ school district email accounts, violations that the candidates said were inadvertent.

In Ford’s case, just 21 of the more than 3,000 emails she sent went to school district accounts, according to an FEA memo.

In Williams’ case, a “significant portion” of his campaign emails were sent to district email accounts, the FEA memo said, but the error appeared to have been made by a private media company he hired.

Both candidates appealed, and in both cases, the FEA decided that the violations were “unintentional and highly unlikely to have affected the outcome of the election.” State leaders recommended that both candidates be reinstated.

Neither Ford nor Williams responded to requests for comment.

Less than a week later, CTA officials moved to block a fourth candidate from running: Don Persson, a Palm Beach Central math teacher who had finished second in the first round of voting in 2014 and later sued the union unsuccessfully.

Like Ford and Williams, Persson was accused of accidentally sending campaign emails to district email accounts. In his case, just 13 of them, according to the FEA.

He was also accused of improperly using the term “CTA” in the sender line of an email, and sending out statements of endorsement from members of other union affiliates.

The FEA found that the first two offenses were not egregious enough to warrant disqualification, and that the last was not a violation at all.

“Though each candidate admittedly made technical violations of the rules, it is the belief of the FEA committee that such violations must be met with proportional discipline,” the FEA’s Credentials and Elections Committee concluded. “In each of these cases, disqualification is inappropriate and excessive.”

The committee added that it is “likely, based on past experience and Department of Labor rulings, that if these candidates are not reinstated and elect to proceed with further appeals, that the Department would likely assert jurisdiction and rule in their favor, which may require that the election be re-run.”

Candidates say removals were politically motivated

Gundlach initially defended the removals, saying that they were necessary because the rule violations gave the three candidates “an unfair advantage.”

“It’s not difficult,” she said. “If you want to follow the rules, you’ll follow the rules.”

After the FEA recommended reinstatement, the union’s board of directors reversed its decision and restored the candidates.

Union leaders “felt that while they had the right to exclude the candidates, it was in the best interest of unionism and inclusiveness to allow the members to determine who the next president of CTA should be,” Gundlach said last week.

The full slate of candidates now includes Ford, Katz, Persson, Williams, Martin Ginsberg, Suzi Grbinich, Gordan Longhofer and David Lutrin. Ginsberg and Longhofer are both members of the CTA’s board of directors.

Longhofer, who helped to lead the union’s contract negotiations last year, is seen by some rivals as the CTA leadership’s preferred candidate. Indeed, he has been publicly endorsed by other high-ranking CTA leaders, including Vice President Bill Rizzo.

A teacher at Pahokee Middle/Senior High School, Longhofer said in an interview that he voluntarily recused himself from union leaders’ debates over whether to remove candidates, since any actions on his part to do so would be “an inherent conflict of interest.”

He declined to comment on the board of directors’ private deliberations on the matter and said he was looking forward to completing a campaign focused on the best interests of teachers.

“I’m eager to see our campaign come to a good completion,” he said.

But candidates on the receiving end of the punishments say they suspect the removals were prompted by political calculations.

Persson attributed the efforts to disqualify him to his longstanding criticism of the union’s political and financial dealings.

“They removed me last election,” he said. “It’s because of the same reasons. I’m asking too many questions.”

Katz saw the effort to remove him less as a personal attack than as a strategic one to reduce competition to candidates who are already members of the union’s top leadership.

“I think it’s more of a general desire by insiders to eliminate any and all candidates they can, to clear the field for the insiders’ preferred candidate,” he said.

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