Faced with blowback from upset teachers, the president of Palm Beach County’s teachers union on Tuesday defended union leaders’ decision not to certify the results of its presidential election, in which a union outsider narrowly defeated a sitting board member.
Kathi Gundlach, the union’s outgoing president, said that the union’s board declined to certify the results on the advice of state union officials, in an effort to avoid a later legal challenge.
“If a challenge has been made, it has to be addressed,” she said.
According to Saturday’s tally, Park Vista High teacher Justin Katz narrowly edged out Pahokee Jr./Sr. High teacher Gordan Longhofer by 28 votes out of 1,356 cast, a 2 percent margin of victory.
Two days later, Longhofer, a member of the union’s board of directors, requested that the votes be recounted by hand. The union’s board agreed to let an elections committee consider the request on Wednesday before certifying the election.
Katz, who is also a Boynton Beach city commissioner, took to Facebook Monday to raise concerns about the move, saying that the company that oversaw the voting process has already handed over the ballots to union leaders, many of whom opposed Katz’s outsider campaign.
“I am cautiously optimistic that ultimately my victory will be certified,” he wrote. “However, given election disasters and improprieties in recent past CTA elections… none of this sits well with me.”
In an interview Tuesday, Longhofer defended his call for the recount, saying that the margin of victory was slim enough that double-checking it seemed prudent.
“It’s 28 votes,” he said. “It’s the closeness of the raw number of votes in this particular election.”
Since the union has no policy regarding recounts, he said he had no choice but to raise the matter himself by challenging the election results.
“We don’t have procedures in our documents that pertain to recounts,” he said.
Several teachers have taken to social media to express their anger with what they characterized as the union’s refusal to accept the results.
“The thieves don’t want to leave,” teacher Bobbie Glatt wrote on Facebook. “Surprise surprise. We may need to start another union.”
“If the union doesn’t certify him president I will cancel my membership,” teacher George Ryan wrote on Facebook. “I encourage others to do the same.”
Gundlach pushed back against suggestions that she and other union leaders were trying to steal the victory from Katz, who criticized the union’s current leadership during his campaign.
“I do take umbrage that it’s us against Justin,” she said. “It’s not against Justin. We have to follow the process and procedure.”
But Gundlach conceded that, in entertaining a recount request, the union is in uncharted waters.
The union’s bylaws make no provisions for recounts, and Gundlach said she could not recall another occasion in which the union agreed to recount election results days after the initially tally.
Florida law calls for recounts in government elections when the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent. Katz pointed out that his reported margin of victory was more than four times the state’s threshold.
A spokesman for the state teachers union, the Florida Education Association, confirmed that its attorney consulted with the CTA about its recount request, though he said the attorney did not tell them whether or not to approve the recount.
“He advised them to follow their election guidelines, which require ‘that in the event of an election challenge, the board of directors will certify the final results of the election upon the CTA’s resolution of such challenge,’” FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said. “That’s the extent of the direction FEA has provided.”
While a private election company oversaw the initial count, the ballots are now in a box in the union’s West Palm Beach headquarters, Gundlach said.
The election-management company has electronic records of the original ballot count, but a hand recount that uncovers new ballots could raise questions about how the ballots are being secured.
During the campaign, union leaders had tried to block Katz from running, removing him from the race in January after ruling that he was ineligible because his dues lapsed in 2015 when he took a family leave to care for his dying grandmother.
He was reinstated later, after the state teachers union called for him to be permitted to run and said that the county union’s leaders lacked “sufficient evidence to support their position.”