PBC teachers union notifies members about election, omits half the candidates

After trying unsuccessfully to bar four teachers from running for union president, Palm Beach County’s teachers union sent out a message last week that omitted the four candidates’ names while praising the others in the race, prompting accusations of favoritism just days before voting begins.

The Classroom Teachers Association’s message was sent Thursday to more than 7,000 public school teachers via the school district’s email system, which the union won access to after promising that the message would include only general information and “no campaigning,” district records show.

The names of four candidates for teachers union president were omitted from an official election announcement. Clockwise from top left: Paulette Ford, Donald Persson, Kevin Williams, and Justin Katz.

The use of district email to single out four candidates for having no alleged election violations – and omit four others who did – drew a rebuke from Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa, who said the message violated his agreement with union president Kathi Gundlach.

“In this case I’m personally disappointed that either she or her team stepped outside our agreement,” he said.

After several complaints, the union sent a second email on Friday that included names and biographies of all eight candidates.

In an interview, Gundlach denied writing the initial message, saying it had been authored by the union’s elections committee. But she defended the message, saying it was important to explain to teachers “that some people had no violations.”

“I’ve had people thank me because they wanted to know what was going on,” she said.

Julie Owen, a teacher who heads the union’s election committee, did not respond to an message seeking comment.

Union leaders sent out the message Thursday afternoon, two days after The Palm Beach Post published an article on its website describing the union’s unsuccessful efforts to remove four of the eight candidates from the race.

The message, sent in Gundlach’s name, alerted teachers that the timeline for the election had been pushed back “due to a number of serious campaign violations and concerns.” Voting now extends from March 15 to April 7.

CTA President Kathi Gundlach

The email went on to detail the alleged violations by four of the eight candidates, without naming them.

As The Post reported last week, Park Vista High School teacher Justin Katz had been initially removed from the race because his dues lapsed during a personal leave in 2015, which county union leaders said violated eligibility rules but state union leaders said did not.

Then, teachers Paulette Ford, Don Persson and Kevin Williams were removed after being accused of sending campaign emails to some teachers’ school district email accounts, violations that they said were unintentional.

In each case, the union’s board of directors removed the candidate from the ballot but reversed the decision after the state teachers union, the Florida Education Association, called the moves “inappropriate and excessive.”

The controversy prompted accusations that the disqualifications were an attempt to eliminate outsiders challenging candidates who are already part of the union’s leadership team.

After detailing the allegations and explaining that the four banned candidates had been allowed to re-enter in the race “in the spirit of unionism and inclusiveness,” the message went on to name the four candidates who had not been cited for violations of campaign rules or eligibility requirements:

“The Elections Committee has indicated the following presidential candidates DO NOT have any actionable election violations or breaks in membership within the last two years:  Marty Ginsberg, Suzi Grbinich, Gordan Longhoffer [sic], and David Lutrin.”

Don Persson, one of the candidates banned and then reinstated, called the email “an attack” on him and other candidates who are out of of favor with CTA leaders.

He called the move an ironic turn, since CTA had moved to bar him and two other candidates after accusing them of violating union rules by using the district’s email system to campaign.

Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

“I think it’s egregious because by naming those four she has named us as being bad guys,” he said. “So she’s doing something far worse, and I believe that definitely oversteps the boundary of the rule she’s talking about.”

Candidate Suzi Grbinich, a Wellington High School teacher, defended the decision to send the email, saying the candidates accused of violations had been the subject of news coverage and that the email would focus deserved attention on those accused of no wrongdoing.

“Those (candidates) who have not committed any violations were named,” she said. “I think membership should know of the candidates who follow the rules.”

After receiving complaints from teachers, Avossa said he conferred by phone with FEA president Joanne McCall. The FEA stepped in to oversee the county union’s tumultuous presidential election in 2014, one in which three separate elections yielded three separate outcomes, with Gundlach named the winner in the final runoff.

“I just don’t want them to go through what they went through last time,” Avossa said. “I want the teachers to feel confident that the process in place in fair.”

In a statement, an FEA spokesman said that McCall “has heard from members and others about the local election” but declined to comment on the CTA’s actions.

“FEA must remain an independent observer of the local elections, should we be called upon to decide on any further issues of contention that may arise,” FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said. “FEA looks forward to a successful completion of the election process in Palm Beach County.”

Here is the entire email sent Thursday by the county union:

Dear CTA Members,

We have had to modify our Election Timelines (see attached) due to a number of serious campaign violations and concerns by candidates for PBCCTA President.  We had one candidate whose eligibility for candidacy was in question. After going through the process of review by the PBCCTA Elections Committee, the PBCCTA Board of Directors, and the FEA Election and Credentials Committee, the PBCCTA Board of Directors determined that this candidate be allowed to participate in the election even though he had a break in membership while on leave.  Three other candidates had campaign violations that resulted in an initial decision to remove them from the ballot.  These candidates used the district email to campaign, which is in violation of our Election Guidelines, District Policy and Federal Law.  After going through the process again of review by the PBCCTA Elections Committee, the PBCCTA Board of Directors, and the FEA Election and Credentials Committee it was determined that these candidates be allowed to participate in the election.  The FEA Credentials and Election Committee indicated all three had campaign violations and should be reprimanded.  However, in the spirit of unionism and inclusiveness, the PBCCTA Board of Directors voted to allow all candidates to participate in the election for the next PBCCTA President.

Also be aware of a survey that looks as if it came from PBCCTA, IT DID NOT.  It is full of erroneous information and was not authorized by PBCCTA. PBCCTA is in good standing with the Florida Education Association.  Previous PBCCTA administrations had fallen behind in their payments to FEA, and in fact since this administration has started we have paid back $50,000 of the balance due.  We are in dialogue with FEA concerning this issue.  Our financial statements are provided to the Board of Directors monthly and at the Representative Assembly monthly.  If you should have any questions concerning our standing please do not hesitate to call CTA.

The Elections Committee has indicated the following presidential candidates DO NOT have any actionable election violations or breaks in membership within the last two years:  Marty Ginsberg, Suzi Grbinich, Gordan Longhoffer, and David Lutrin.

The PBCCTA Elections Committee

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