Hidden audit shows big budget hole at union for Miami Dade schools lowest-paid workers

By William Gjebre, Florida Bulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho and AFSCME, Local 1184 President Vicki Hall at a meeting in November 2016.

An embattled union representing the lowest-paid Miami-Dade public schools employees is facing new problems that include a $210,000 budget deficit, possibly driven by compensation paid to a handful of top union officials.

The shortfall at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1184 is a huge hole in a budget that in past years has typically ranged from $200,000 to $250,000 – funding primarily collected from union dues.

The large deficit was disclosed in an audit by AFSCME international headquarters in Washington, D.C. that’s dated May 2, yet only made public this month.

A former union official who ran for president of the local said the suppression of the audit could have cost him the May 18 election.

“Why did the international allow someone to run for office with a $200,000 deficit?” said Terry Haynes, a former union vice president who was defeated by incumbent Local 1184 president Vicki Hall.

Aside from the union’s budget issues, Haynes said, there was a lack of disclosure of information by Local 1184 regarding union finances as well as failure by the union to obtain approvals of the full executive board. Increased expenditures in light of the union’s precarious financial problems are not justified, Haynes added.

Terry Haynes, former senior vice president of Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

Hall, Local 1184 president since May 2015, did not respond to an email and phone calls for comment on the audit and related issues. Jeffrey Taggart, director of accounting and auditing, AFSCME international in Washington, whose office conducted the audit under his signature, also did not respond to a request for comment. Andy Madtes, executive director of Florida Council 979, which oversees AFSCME locals in the state, maintained that the audit is a matter between the international and Local 1184 and does not fall under the council’s purview.

AFSCME international “does not comment on an internal issue,” said Mark McCullough, a spokesperson for both the international and Local 1184. He would not discuss what measures have been taken by Local 1184 to address the financial and other issues referenced in the audit.

‘A deficit of $210,667’

“The 2016 and 2017 annual budgets approved by the Executive Board do not provide the net income/net loss,” the audit stated. “Total budgeted income for 2017 less the total budgeted expenditures for 2017 results in a deficit of $210,667. Additionally, the expenditures on the annual budgets do not total correctly.”

Audit information, as well as an apparent union tentative budget document for 2017, provides some answers to the funding imbalance.

“The 2016 budget for payroll was $121,620 and the 2017 budget payroll is $146,820,” the audit stated. Those numbers, however, appear to be far less than the actual union payrolls for 2016 and apparently for 2017.

The audit stated that Hall’s total compensation and payments for 2016, funded by union dues, were $116,572, including $50,915 in union salary (called “allowance”) and another $10,276 in reimbursements; $43,443 from her district annual salary as a bus driver, and $11,938 for fringe benefits, unused sick time and vacation pay. The union’s agreement with the Miami-Dade public schools system calls for the union to reimburse the district for Hall’s district salary and other benefits so she can do union business.

During 2016, Haynes, at the union’s request, was also on full-time release from his district job as a custodian, and his total compensation and payments were $68,944, including $44,373 from his district salary and another $12,958 for fringe benefits, unused sick and vacation time; $11,150 in his union salary, and another $463 in union reimbursements.

In addition to the $185,516 in compensation for Hall and Haynes, the union in 2016 paid allowances to 12 other union officials for about $50,000 — or a grand total of $235,516.

Local 1184’s budget totals for 2017 were not identified in the audit. But Haynes provided a document he said was a working tentative union budget for this year that showed the union’s income from dues, normally the main funding source, would amount to only $159,523 for the year. Haynes said that as far as he can recall the 2017 union payroll was not reduced from the previous year.

A drop in membership dues coming?

The tentative budget document Haynes provided projected that Local 1184 would collect a total of $974,590 in dues for the 2017 budget. Most of that is sent up to the Florida Council and AFSCME international. Local 1184’s $159,523 share of the total is 16.4 percent of the total.

In the last reports to the state of Florida regarding yearly dues from members, Local 1184 stated it collected $1.128 million in 2015 and $1.182 million in 2013. This indicates Local 1184 is facing a drop in membership dues for 2017.

The audit report was also critical of Local 1184 in other areas, noting that certain cash allowances and increases for officers were not approved by the membership and that the local bought 14 new cellphones for its executive board members at a price that was higher than what had been approved.

The issue of union finances is the latest controversy surrounding the union. Haynes had criticized Hall for failing to challenge the school system when the School Board approved two contracts totaling $1.8 million outsourcing lawn service work usually done by union employees.

Haynes also was critical after it was learned that the school district gave Hall a $16,000 pay hike, raising her base annual salary to $42,000 from $26,000, two months before the November 2015 outsourcing contract was approved.

Controversy continued at the end of the May 18th union election when member votes were being counted. Haynes said his unofficial count had him leading when an election committee official left the area and returned with papers in hand. Shortly afterward, he said, Hall was declared the winner. “They stole the election,” he said.

Haynes contested the election, but AFSCME international denied it saying he filed the appeal too late.

Haynes said he believes that the international, despite its claim of opposing outsourcing, did not support his call for a new election because “they want her [Hall] there” rather than someone like himself who speaks up about problems.

Miami-Dade Schools gives fat, multi-year lobbying contract to Trump-connected lobbyist

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Lobbyist Brian Ballard

Seeking an edge in Republican-dominated Washington politics, Miami-Dade public school officials awarded a federal lobbying contract to an influential Florida firm whose chief officer played a significant role in the election of President Donald Trump last fall.

On the recommendation of Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, the Miami-Dade School Board on Wednesday awarded a contract that could pay Ballard Partners up to $540,000 over five years beginning July 1. The initial three-year contract pays up to $324,000 and can be extended for two years and pay up to an additional $216,000.

The firm, which earlier this year opened an office in Washington D.C., will “provide federal legislative consulting services to assist in advocating the Board’s interest before the South Florida Congressional Delegation, federal legislative committees, and the Executive Branch, including the Secretaries of Education, Commerce, Health and Human Services and Justice,” according to the school board’s agenda item on the matter.

Brian D. Ballard, president of the firm, was a key factor in the awarding of the contract, especially with his link to Trump. He has represented Trump on business matters in the state – on and off – for at least 10 years.

Ballard declined to discuss business matters in which he represented Trump. “I don’t talk about my clients’ ” business, he said.

“I think his relationship with the administration is value added,” said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, MDCPS associate superintendent, Intergovernmental Affairs, Grants Administration and Community Engagement. Her office requested the issuance of proposals for firms interested in representing the school district in Washington.

“You know it’s about relations and who can open doors … and this specific firm outlined expertise,” Mendez-Cartaya said.

Asked about the role his relationship with Trump played in the selection, Ballard said in an earlier interview that he’d leave speculation for others to address. But he added, “I think it can prove to be value added. I think I can work with this administration.”

The Trump connection

Ballard Partners’ website spells out the connection, especially its most recent involvement leading to Trump’s election. “Brian’s political portfolio includes significant roles in presidential campaigns including the historic election of President Donald J. Trump. He was an integral player in the President’s successful Florida campaign serving as Chairman of the Trump Victory and leading the campaign’s finance efforts in Florida.

Brian Ballard is listed as Trump’s Florida Finance Chairman in this campaign fundraiser announcement

“Brian also had the honor of serving as a member of the Electoral College casting his vote for President Trump. The President-elect appointed Brian to serve as Vice Chairman of the Inaugural Committee and as a member of the Presidential Transition Finance Committee.”

Ballard’s other presidential campaigns involved John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 when he chaired the Florida Finance Committee for those two Republican Party nominees.

The selection of Ballard by the Miami-Dade school district marks its reentry into the national political scene with a lobbying firm to represent it. The district has been without a federal lobbying firm for nearly 10 years, having cut the expenditure due past fiscal hardships; district staffers took on the work during that time.

Ballard Partners beat out four other firms for the contract. Ballard Partners has offices around the state, including Tallahassee, Coral Gables, Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

Speaking of representing the Miami-Dade and its new Washington offices, Ballard said, “It’s exciting for us.” Representing Miami-Dade schools, he said, “can be an important public service.”

“We have a track record of success and expect to be successful,” Ballard said. Aside from ties to Trump, Ballard said many of the Washington legislators served in Tallahassee, adding, “We have a relationship [with them].”

While the company will be a new player, Ballard’s Washington staffers are veterans of Florida and Washington politics. They include Sylvester Lukis, with more than 40 years of experience in representing clients in Florida and Washington; Otto Reich, former ambassador to Venezuela; Susie Wiles, who was a key player in Trump Florida campaign; Dan McFaul, who has been involved in Washington politics for 20 years, including serving as a staffer on Trump’s transition team; and Robert Wexler, who served as a Democratic member of Congress from 1997-2010 and in the Florida Senate for six years.

Miami-Dade Schools, union push costly private loan program for lowest paid workers

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Terry Haynes, senior vice president of Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

A union representing the lowest-paid Miami-Dade Public Schools employees has endorsed a proposed private loan program for its members that would charge 24 percent interest with the school district collecting loan repayments by deducting them from employee paychecks.

The proposal, which did not go before the Miami-Dade School Board for public discussion and approval or review, has drawn criticism from an outspoken union official who will seek to become president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, in a May election.

“The interest rate is high” for the union employees and “puts them in harm’s way,” said controversial Local 1184 Senior Vice President Terry Haynes. Haynes was suspended by the loca’s executive board last month but reinstated March 28 by AFSCME’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. following an investigation.

Critical of the union and the school district for backing a contract change that allows for a private company to set up the loan program, Haynes said, “If they want to do something, why not something more manageable” than 24 percent interest? “If we have people going out for those loans,” he said, “it means they are not being paid enough.”

The loan program proposal arises from a modification to the labor contract that was agreed to by the school district and the union Jan. 31. The change allows for the union to have another payroll deduction slot for “other economic services” to be used by “entities or businesses” as designated, with the school district being held harmless under the plan.

Vicki Hall, Local 1184 president who signed the agreement on behalf of the union, Hall did not respond to requests for comment, including a question about what benefits the union might receive for backing the BMG loan program. Union draft documents about the program, however, state that BMG would provide financial literacy training to union workers; support union membership drives and make an unspecified contribution to the union.

But Tom McCormick, chief growth officer for BMG Money Inc., said in an email, “We do not plan on offering any incentives to AFSCME based on any milestones.”

Two school district officials — Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, assistant superintendent in charge of Labor Relations and Compensation, and Jose Dotres, Chief Human Resources Officer, who signed the “Memorandum of Understanding” on behalf of the district – also failed to return calls for comment.

A new payroll slot

But in a district email response, Santiesteban-Pardo said that in September the union had requested the payroll department to “add a payroll slot for Loans at Work, a program offered through BMG Money… The Union has not presented the District with the agreement in order to begin the program. The terms and conditions of the program are subject to the agreement between BMG and AFSCME. At this time, no other union in M-DCPS has requested a payroll slot for BMG Money.”

A draft letter from AFSCME Local 1184 backing the BMG loan program states: “Sometimes when savings aren’t available and neither banks nor credit unions can help, these expenses can create true financial hardships in our lives…

“Though the interest rate is somewhat higher than what our more fortunate members might pay, 23.99%, it is definitely reasonable in comparison to payday loans that charge anywhere from 200%-400% APR… The availability of the [BMG] LoansAtWork program is in the best interest of our members – another tool in times of need.”

Haynes, however, said there is something wrong when only the lowest-paid employees are being offered the loan program at what he considers a high rate. The union should not be a party to this, he said, adding he told Hall it was not good for union employees.

The school district will, in effect, become a “collection agency” because loan repayments will be made through the district’s payroll deduction system, said Haynes.

BMG’s McCormick declined to comment on any talks with the district and Local 1184, but did discuss his company’s program.

“BMG Money’s LoansAtWork program is a fixed-rate, fixed-payment employee emergency loan program,” McCormick stated. “When facing an expected expense, too many good people with good jobs are left with few options except predatory payday lenders… Payday lenders in Florida offer short-term loans with absurdly high interest rates of 265% and repayment terms that make the loans exceedingly burdensome on borrowers.”

But a Tallahassee-based consumer group that strongly opposes predatory payday lending says BMG’s 23.99 percent interest, while considerably lower, is no bargain, either.

“I would say it is a pretty high interest rate,” said Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection. “I certainly would call it not very risky [for BMG] with an interest rate that high and guaranteed repayment through paycheck deduction…I advocate they lower the rate.”

BMG Money

BMG Money Inc., incorporated in September 2009 in Delaware, began operations in Florida in 2010 and has an office on Brickell Avenue. The company’s majority shareholder is an affiliate of Banco BMG S.A. of Sao Paulo, Brazil, according to bid documents it presented to Broward County government, where the company is under consideration for establishment of a loan program for county employees.

Banco BMG S.A., according to Bloomberg Private Business Information, “provides commercial and credit, financing, and investment products and services primarily in Brazil.” It also provides “salary account deductible loans … personal direct debit loan accounts for civil servants, retirees … and pensioners,” according to Bloomberg.

In its short time in Florida, BMG has been busy. In its documents to Broward County government, BMG stated it has 42 governmental or public entity clients, all in Florida, and has issued “over $107 million of loans to employees who otherwise would have fallen victim to predatory payday loans.”

Among the 42 clients are Broward County Public Schools and the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. The loan programs with these other government agencies were offered to all employees working for those agencies after being reviewed and or authorized by the governing bodies.

BMG’s bid documents to Broward County give a glimpse of how the loan program operates: Loans do not compound, do not require credit reports, do not require fees, will be “unsecured” (not require the backing of homes, cars or savings as collateral), will be in amounts from $500 to $5,000, will be repaid through payroll deductions over six to 24 months, and can be paid back early without penalty. BMG also provides financial literacy training for borrowers.

The controversy involving the loan program is another sharp difference between Haynes and Hall. Led by Hall, Local 1184’s executive board on March 7 suspended Haynes from his duties as Senior Vice President, but on March 28 he was reinstated by AFSCME’s headquarters after an investigation.

Haynes said he was told by Hall that he was suspended for talking to a reporter for the FloridaBulldog. In an article appearing one day before his March 7 suspension, Haynes questioned why Hall received a huge annual pay hike from the school district two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts totaling $1.8 million, over a five-year period, to outsource lawn service normally done by union employees. Haynes linked the pay boost to the two contracts that the union failed to challenge at the time of School Board approvals.

Union ousts top officer for talking to reporter about union president’s big pay hike

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

A top union official has been suspended by his union for speaking out to a Florida Bulldog reporter and raising questions about the Miami-Dade school administration giving a huge pay hike to the union’s president two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts that outsourced lawn maintenance usually done by union workers.

That was one of the new developments spawned by the controversy. Others include new information that Union President Vicki Hall’s combined district and union salary is nearing $100,000; the school district administration is seeking to distance itself from the matter; some union members are considering addressing their concerns to the School Board at a public hearing on Wednesday, March 15.

On March 7, Hall, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, persuaded the local’s executive board to back her move to suspend and remove Terry Haynes as the local’s senior vice president.

Members of the executive board, aside from Hall, who voted for the removal were Vannie Brown, Joan Jones, Charles Hepburn, Helen Huls, Michael Norman, Tanya Page, Sabrina Small, Theresa Storr and Bryon Houghtaling, according to Haynes.

The suspension came one day after Haynes, in story by the Florida Bulldog, questioned a district-approved $16,000 pay increase that raised Hall’s salary to $42,000 from $26,000; Haynes linked the hike to the two contracts that went unopposed by the union. The Miami-Dade County Public School Board approved the contracts on Nov. 18, 2015, and Feb. 3, 2016, totaling up to $1.8 million over five years for private firms to perform lawn service at district property.

Hall did not return calls for comment. Just before the meeting where Haynes was suspended, Hall called the Florida Bulldog to ask for an email address, saying she planned to respond to the article. She did not respond, nor did she respond to additional calls for comment on the last Tuesday’s suspension.

“She suspended me for talking to you about union matters without going through” her, Haynes said. Haynes maintained, however, that Hall had given him permission to speak to the media for a prior story about the controversy—and he continued to do so, questioning the pay increase and its relationship to the two contracts.

A testy meeting

The meeting at the union’s Miami Springs office got a little testy. Haynes said when he tried to remove his personal items, Hall insisted that he leave right away and then placed a call to Miami Springs police to make sure he left. Haynes said he left before any police officers arrived.

The suspension, Haynes said, requires him to refrain from involvement in his duties as a union official.

On the evening of the suspension, Haynes said he did not receive any written statements outlining the reasons for his removal. But on the following Friday he received certified mail at his Miami Gardens home. “As you were notified, you are no longer a Local 1184 Sr. Vice President and you can no longer handle any cases that involve AFSCME Local 1184.” Hall asked that Haynes return to the union all case documents he has in his possession by the end of Wednesday March 15. If not returned by then, the “property will be considered stolen” and the union will consider legal action to recover the material, Hall’s letter stated.

Hall also sent a letter notifying the school district that Haynes, who had been released from his district job duties as a custodian to perform full-time work on union business, should be returned to his district job responsibilities.

The suspension, however, might violate the union’s constitution, which requires the presentation of formal charges that specify recognized reasons for removal. Haynes said no such charges were presented. He also said the union’s constitution has a “bill of rights” that protects freedom of speech.

“I didn’t violate any rules,” Haynes said.  “I don’t think she has the authority [to suspend me].” Furthermore, he said he was planning to file an appeal to the national AFSCME union in Washington, D.C. and to reach union members to explain his actions.

Haynes said he will challenge Hall in May when the union presidency is up for grabs.

Meanwhile, it was learned that Hall’s salary from the union for 2016 was about $50,000. Her annual school district salary currently is $43,000 annually, which the union reimburses to the district, along with benefit costs. Union dues pay for her union salary.

Top district officials, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Human Resources Chief Officer Jose Dotres and Assistant Superintendent Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, in charge of Labor Relations, did not  return calls from the Florida Bulldog requesting comment regarding the outsourcing stories.

Santiesteban-Pardo told The Miami Herald that Hall was promoted from a 10-month to a 12-month bus driver when elected “in order to provide parity with the 12-month position of the previous union president.”

‘Unheard’ of pay hike

“That’s nonsense,” Haynes said, adding that he never heard of that occurring before. The union-school district contract provides that Hall’s salary should have been hiked by only $1,700 upon going from a 10-month to a 12-month bus driver, he said.

After being assigned to head Labor Relations in July, 2016, Santiesteban-Pardo told The Herald she began working to resolve grievances related to the outsourcing, with a settlement being reached in January “to ensure contractual procedures for outsourcing would be followed by all district entities.”

The settlement, Haynes said, provides what is already in the contract – provisions that were observed for many years – that the district notify the union when considering outsourcing, outline the scope of the work and give the union time to respond.

The school district followed these contract provisions for many years, until it ignored them in the awarding of the two contracts, Haynes said. “That’s not a settlement at all,” Haynes added. Haynes’ suspension may prevent him from pursuing two grievances he filed in connection with the outsourcing contracts that he maintained were not covered by the recent settlement signed by Hall.

“The District’s action and resolutions are unrelated and this issue may reside more appropriately under the union’s domain,” Santiesteban-Pardo told The Herald.

After school district officials helped create the problem by outsourcing contracts without notice to the union as required, Haynes said, they are now trying to push back from the controversy. “They are trying to get the heat off the district,” Haynes said. “They can’t distance themselves from this. This came from top management, backed by Carvalho.”

There has been talk, Haynes said, that some union members may attend the school board meeting this Wednesday to speak on the controversy and related issues.

Miami-Dade schools gave union boss fat pay hike before outsourcing work

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho and AFSCME, Local 1184 President Vicki Hall at a meeting in November 2016.

The Miami-Dade public schools administration gave a 60 percent pay hike to the president of the union that represents the district’s lowest-paid employees months before the school board approved one of two contracts that outsourced lawn maintenance work traditionally performed by union workers.

A top official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1184 is questioning why president Vicki Hall got such a large pay increase and linked it to the two contracts that went unchallenged by the union before they were approved. The raise brought Hall’s annual school district salary from $26,141 to $42,000, records show.

“Why would they change her pay status … and give her a $16,000 increase? I tie it to the two contracts,” said union senior vice president Terry Haynes, adding that Hall’s pay raise exceeded promotion provisions of the labor contract by more than $14,000.  “She cut deals” related to the district’s outsourcing contracts, he said.

AFSCME officials have complained that the outsourcing, which could pay private firms up to $1.8 million over five years, violates the union’s labor agreement with the district and will result in loss of work for employees represented by the union. The controversy has exposed sharp differences between Hall, who was elected president of the local in May 2015, and Haynes, the local’s second in command.

Hall was asked to comment on her salary hike and how it came about. “You want me to incriminate myself,” she said before hanging up.

Re-contacted again a few days later, Hall declined to comment.

In an earlier interview several months ago,  Hall maintained that “no deals” were made and that she was “still a bus driver.” She also said that her annual salary increase was only from $36,000 to $42,000 – numbers different than those provided by the school district.

The union also provides Hall a separate salary stipend for her service as president, and reimburses the school administration for her school district salary so she can carry out union duties full time. The union represents about 7,900 employees, including custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance employees and some staffers at WLRN, the public radio and TV station whose license is owned by the Miami-Dade School Board.

A comparison

By way of comparison, Haynes said the district never gave longtime union president Sherman Henry a large pay increase or a better pay grade. Instead, Haynes said, Henry got the same increases negotiated for all union employees. Henry retired from the school district two years ago after serving as union president for 24 years.

Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, who union officials say backed the two outsourcing contracts, did not respond to a call for comment. School Board Attorney Walter Harvey did not return calls for comment, or to an email asking him whether the outsourcing contracts violated the union’s labor agreement with the district, as union representatives contend. Chief Human Resources Officer Jose Dotres also would not comment.

School district Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, however, maintained that the outsourcing contracts don’t violate the board’s contract with AFSCME, and that an agreement has been reached with the union to clarify outsourcing procedures. She added that the settlement resolves all grievances filed about the two contracts that outsourced lawn service.

The settlement, signed by Hall and district officials, calls for the district to do what the district’s labor agreement called for it to do: give notice to the union when it plans to outsource work, outline the scope of work and allow the union time to decide if it wants to challenge.

Union officials complained that had not been done. “I think downtown is in control’’ of the union, said Haynes, who disagreed with both the settlement and any claim that it resolves two grievances he filed about district outsourcing work.

School district officials refused to provide Hall’s annual salary on Jan. 1, 2015 and on July 1, 2015 when she and union members received a union-district negotiated pay increase. Andrea Williams, executive director in the Office of Labor Relations, said the district only provides hourly rates for 10-month school bus drivers; Hall’s official job with the district on those dates was that of a 10-month bus driver.

An analysis of school district information, however, shows that as of July 1, 2015, Hall’s salary was $26,141 a year. Three months later, Hall’s annual salary jumped 60 percent to $42,000 after the administration changed her status to a 12-month school bus driver. The change put Hall on a more lucrative salary schedule.

According to Haynes, Hall’s salary should have increased only by about $1,600 a year under promotion provisions in the district’s labor contract with AFSCME.

Outsourcing followed union president’s big raise

In November 2015, two months after Hall’s salary hike to $42,000, the first of the two lawn maintenance outsourcing contracts was approved by the School Board. The five-year contract authorized 11 companies to provide lawn services totaling up to $1 million. The type of work includes tree, palm and shrub trimming, pruning and stump removal, according to board records.

The contract was approved two days after the union withdrew a related previous grievance and a request for arbitration. The union filed the grievance in June 2014 after discovering that a private firm was doing lawn service work at Krop Senior High School in North Dade.

According to documents provided by the school district, the district paid about $273,000 to the companies it contracted with to outsource lawn services. the district contacted with as of Nov. 29, 2016. The union did not file a grievance at the time the contract was approved.

The other contract, for up to five years, was approved by the School Board on Feb. 3, 2016. Thomas Maintenance Service will be paid up to $800,000 to mow vacant lots and clear fence lines.

According to documents provided by the school district, nearly $82,000 was paid to Thomas Maintenance as of last November. The union did not file a grievance at the time that contract was approved, either.

Haynes accuses Hall of failing to take a strong stance against the district’s efforts on outsourcing. “It’s her responsibility to watch board items” and guard any actions detrimental to employees represented by the union, he said.

Haynes criticized the union’s withdrawal of the Krop High grievance. “She ordered the grievance pulled in a deal cut with Labor Relations,” he said.

“I told her not to pull it because it can result in a pattern,” Haynes said.”The grievance should never have been pulled because they may try to do it again.” And they did, he added.

In the interview months ago, Hall had a different version. She said that in November 2015 she ordered the Krop grievance withdrawn because she was given assurances from an official in Labor Relations that the union would be notified in the future of any outsourcing proposals.

It was “based on a good faith” promise, Hall said.

Miami-Dade union leaders fear more outsourcing of members’ work at district schools

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org   

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho Photo: NBC6 South Florida

The Miami-Dade School Board has agreed to spend up to $1.8 million to outsource lawn service maintenance long done by unionized workers, and union leaders now say they fear Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is eyeing more privatization that could lead to additional work cuts for its members.

The two, five-year outsourcing contracts stand to eliminate tasks generally assigned to maintenance workers and custodians represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 1184.

“It’s work the employees are supposed to be doing,” said AFSCME local president Vicki Hall. AFSCME workers are generally the lowest-paid union members working for the school district; they include custodians, maintenance employees, bus drivers and food service personnel.

“It weakens the union when they outsource and take away jobs from the employees who should be doing the work,” said Terry Haynes, the AFSCME local’s senior vice president. He estimated the two contracts cost 10 to 15 school district jobs.

Both pointed the finger at Superintendent Carvalho for the outsourcing. “He’s aware of it; all falls under him,” Haynes said, adding the superintendent “backed the first two” contracts.

“I believe this is the start of outsourcing of all of lawn service,” Haynes said.

“He’s trying to outsource lawn service. He’s trying to privatize,” said Hall.

District officials did not respond to calls for comment on the issue, so reasons for the outsourcing were unknown, including whether they claim it was for cost reasons. Carvalho also would not discuss the matter when a reporter attempted to talk with him at the Dec. 14 board meeting.

A day after the meeting, however, district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego released this statement: “Recently, there was misunderstanding regarding the District’s procedures for contracting out. In an effort to provide clarity, the District and the Union are working on an agreement to ensure that all parties understand the process and protocols to be followed.”

Outsourcing a management right?

Union officials Hall and Haynes complained that in recent years district officials have taken the position that outsourcing is a management right that can be invoked unilaterally and they do not have to confer with the union.

But Haynes said the district is overlooking a ruling in a case years ago in which the union prevailed in arbitration. The ruling in that matter stated the district had to notify the union if it sought to outsource work that could be performed by union employees and the parties had to negotiate the impact of the proposed work. If the parties did not come to an agreement, the union could move ahead with arbitration.

After that case, the district generally followed that ruling, until recently, Haynes said, adding the two contracts are indicative of the district’s changing policy.

The first of the two contracts was approved by the School Board on Nov. 18, 2015 for up to five years for 11 companies to provide lawn service totaling up to $1 million. The type of work includes tree, palm and shrub trimming, pruning and stump removal, according to board records.

The contract was approved two days after the union withdrew a grievance and the request for arbitration. The union had filed the grievance in June 2014 after discovering that a private firm was doing lawn service work at Krop Senior High School in North Dade.

According to documents provided by the school district, approximately $273,000 has been paid to the companies as of Nov. 29, 2016. The union did not file a grievance at the time the contract was approved, according to Haynes.

The other contract, for up to five years, was approved by the School Board on Feb. 3, 2016. Thomas Maintenance Service will be paid up to $800,000 to mow vacant lots and clear fence lines.

According to documents provided by the school district, nearly $82,000 was paid to Thomas Maintenance as of Nov. 21, 2016.

Haynes said the union filed a grievance related to the Thomas Maintenance contract in April regarding work done at the district’s North Dade maintenance facility. Two more grievances were filed in September after the union learned about other outsourced lawn work at a high school and an elementary school, both in the northwest section, Haynes added. All three grievances remain pending.

New Miami-Dade School board member: Let’s focus on fixing failing schools

Update: The Miami-Dade School Board Wednesday unanimously approved a new plan to improve failing schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

The proposal, introduced by board member Steve Gallon, also gained the backing of residents and community leaders in the northwest section of the county. School Board Chair Larry Feldman said he hoped the strong showing of support by the board and the community will result in an initiative that will become “blue print” for the improvement of failing schools everywhere.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo:CBS4Miami

Photo:CBS4Miami

 

Newly elected Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon is proposing to focus the district’s attention on improving failing schools in some of the county’s poorest locations, often in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

Gallon, who campaigned on a promise to throw a spotlight on failing schools, has an item on Wednesday’s School Board agenda to address schools that have received repeated “F” ratings as well as those that have received a “D” under the state’s rating system.

The new school improvement proposal for failing schools is reminiscent – on a much smaller scale – of an initiative undertaken while Rudy Crew was superintendent of schools in Miami-Dade more than a decade ago.

Crew’s effort, which began in the second half of the 2004-2005 school year, entailed a large number of schools, with substantial district funding, during a period of intensive state scrutiny of failing schools. Known as the School Improvement Zone, the plan was abandoned after several more years with questionable results.

Gallon’s proposal, which makes no mention of specific funding support, calls on the Miami-Dade School Board to actively monitor the progress of the undertaking through the review of plans and programs, and other actions to bring about improvement.

While acknowledging that “the district as a whole has done well,” Gallon said in an emailed response to questions about his proposal, “there remain pockets of persistent underperformance in certain sectors of the community.”

He said his item was not “to indict the District for past performance” but “seeks to serve as a renewed call for action” for improving “F” and “D” schools.

A number of those failing schools are in District 1, which Gallon represents, and District 2, represented by board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.

Gallon pointed to the following schools needing attention: Carol City Middle which has received five consecutive “F” grades; Brownsville Middle, which has received three “F” grades in a row, and North Dade Middle, which has received two consecutive “F” grades.

He listed four other schools with “F” grades: Skyway/Dr. Frederica S. Wilson Elementary; Poinciana Park Elementary, and Earlington Heights Elementary.

All seven schools are in School Board Districts 1 and 2.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency around addressing the needs of these schools in the areas that were enumerated and must include strategies that are inclusive of parents and stakeholders in the broader community,” Gallon said in his written response.

“This item is not simply about District 1 and 2,” said. “This item is about the collective responsibility and commitment of a united School Board that is charged with educational oversight of a unified school district. The approval of this item will further bolster the Board’s conversation and commitment to all schools and all children irrespective of voting districts or zip codes.”

Gallon called for a “review of the resource allocations in schools to ensure equity and the support structure to ensure effectiveness and impact.”

The School Board, he said, should “play a role” in monitoring the initiative “because what gets monitored gets done.”

Gallon’s item, which seeks board support for enactment, calls for the Superintendent to:

*Provide a status update, at the Feb. 15, 2017 School Board meeting, on the Districts’ F schools, including improvement planning, intervention and support, leadership, teacher quality and support, professional development, curriculum, resource allocation, technology and parental and community partnerships;

*Provide monthly status updates to the School Board on the progress of the F school improvement plan; and

*Initiate a framework and process to establish a District Advisory Board to provide input and support to the schools that earn two or more consecutive letter grades of F based on the annual state assessment.

Two Miami-Dade charter schools loaned $900K in taxpayer funds to sister schools

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Two Miami-Dade charter schools illegally transferred taxpayer funds by lending a combined $912,094 to sister schools outside the county, the top lawyer for the Florida Department of Education has determined.

As a result, Miami-Dade Public Schools auditor Jose Montes de Oca is recommending the district initiate efforts to recoup the money even as a representative for one of the charter schools claims no law was broken.

On Dec. 6, Montes de Oca will brief the school board audit and management committee on what steps the district can take to recoup the funds used for the loans.

In an Oct. 21 letter to school district attorney Walter Harvey, education department general counsel Matthew Mears said Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead and BridgePrep Academy in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood were prohibited from making loans to affiliated schools not in Miami-Dade.

“Funds that are appropriated to a local school district are for the education of the students within the school district,” Mears wrote. “For this reason, the transfer of appropriated funds across district lines, with or without interest, is not authorized.”

Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Florida Charter Educational Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns Keys Gate disputed Mears’ conclusion that the $700,000 loaned to Clay Charter School in Middleburg, Florida, is illegal. Keys Gate and Clay are operated by Charter Schools USA, one of the country’s largest charter school management companies, under a contract with the foundation.

“We have not received any direction or concern regarding this issue,” Reynolds told Florida Bulldog. “However, we believe we are in full compliance with the law.”

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Juan Carlos Quintana, a principal with S.M.A.R.T. Management, the company that developed and operates BridgePrep Academy, did not return three phone calls and an email message seeking comment about the $212,094 loan given to an unidentified affiliated school in another county. Two other Miami-area charter schools under the BridgePrep name also had loaned a combined $18,949 to sister schools outside the county, but those funds have already been paid back, according to a Sept. 12 Montes de Oca memo to the audit committee.

The dispute over the use of district school funds for loans initially arose in May when Montes de Oca notified the school board’s audit and management committee about the problem following his review of annual financial statements for 2015 submitted by Keys Gate and BridgePrep. At the time, Keys Gate had loaned Clay Academy $750,000 with zero interest. Since then, the loan was paid back, but Keys Gate issued another loan for capital improvements at Clay Academy. This second loan is for $700,000 with a five percent interest rate and a term of five years, according to Montes de Oca’s September letter.

Opinon sought

The school board attorney sought an opinion from Mears after Keys Gate officials informed Montes de Oca that the loans were acceptable under state law, according to a Nov. 30 letter by the school district auditor.

Mears’ response that the loans are illegal prompted Montes de Oca to recommend that the money be returned. “The district administration plans to formally notify these schools of the state’s guidance and that the loan funds must be repaid,” Montes de Oca wrote.

Charter school watchdogs told Florida Bulldog the loans illustrate a total disregard for taxpayer funds diverted from public schools to private educational institutions. Lisa Guisbond, executive director for Citizens for Public Education, an organization that advocates against charter schools and standardized testing in Massachusetts, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should be held accountable for the mishandling of school district funds.

“It seems bizarre that a charter school would have an extra $750,000 to loan out when so many public schools are scraping by to meet the needs of their students,” Guisbond said. “That kind of blows my mind. It’s outrageous, even.”

Carol Burris, executive director for the New York-based Network for Public Education, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should not have given out the loans in the first place.

“In the case of these charter schools, their allegiance to their sister charters was greater than their allegiance to the children of Miami-Dade County they are supposed to serve,” Burris said. “They put the needs of the charter schools ahead of the needs of the kids. That is a problem.”

It’s a good thing both schools were caught, she added. “Hopefully, it will discourage other charters from doing the same,” Burris said. “And I hope the citizens of Miami-Dade have all of their tax dollars returned.”

Banned in New Jersey’s public schools, ex-official wants on Miami-Dade School Board

 

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Steven Gallon III

Steven Gallon III

A former Miami-Dade County school principal/district administrator banned from working in New Jersey public schools following an investigation during his tenure as superintendent of a 7,000-student district is seeking a seat on the Miami-Dade School Board.

Steven Gallon III says his New Jersey troubles, including an arrest for theft, were “driven by politics.” Likewise he disputes allegations surrounding his firm’s management of a trio of South Florida charter schools and his authority to hire and set salaries. “That had nothing to do with me,” Gallon said in an interview.

With the school board election set for Aug. 30, Gallon has a sizeable funding lead in his attempt to unseat District 1 incumbent Wilbert “Tee” Holloway.

According to the latest campaign reports filed with the Miami-Dade elections office, Gallon has raised $65,120; Holloway, $17,900; and another candidate, James Bush III, $4,685.

Gallon, who worked his way up from teacher to principal at Miami Northwestern Senior High from 1998-2005 to district administrator in Miami-Dade public schools, said he’s running because District 1 needs a change.

“…The schools in District 1 continue to languish in the areas of student achievement, educator quality and support, and other areas that will ensure the learning and lifelong success of our students,” he said in a prepared statement to FloridaBulldog.org.

Aware of the funding gap, Holloway said the election is “not about money.” He said he believes he has done a good job for the parents and students in his district and hopes voters will support his re-election.

Holloway declined to comment about controversy surrounding Gallon, including his tenure in New Jersey. It is for the voters to decide, he said.

New Jersey controversy

In 2008, Gallon was hired as superintendent of the Plainfield, N.J., public schools at a salary of $198,000. Not long afterward, controversy enveloped the new superintendent.

First, the New Jersey Department of Education found that two of three Miami colleagues that Gallon hired did not have the required certifications for their $100,000-plus positions, according to a New Jersey media report. After the finding, the two, Lalelei Kelly and Lesly Borge, were fired by the school board, the report stated.

School Board incumbent Wilbert "Tee" Holloway

School Board incumbent Wilbert “Tee” Holloway

Despite the news report, Gallon said in his statement, “Only one of the four from Florida had an issue and was erroneously placed in the wrong position by Human Resources when hired and prior to my arrival as superintendent.”

Furthermore, he stated, “… with respect to the certifications of staff, I requested a state inquiry and the state concluded that I did no wrong and there were issues with nearly 30 other employee[s] that were employed by the district prior to my arrival and under the responsibility of the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources.”

Following the certification issue, Gallon, Kelly and Angela Kemp, his third assistant from Miami, were charged with stealing more than $10,000 worth of educational services, according to a press release from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, which filed the charges in May 2010.

The prosecutor’s press release said Gallon was charged with “conspiring to commit theft by deception, theft by deception as an accomplice, and false swearing.” Kelly and Kemp were charged with “uttering false documents, theft by deception, conspiracy to commit theft by deception and false swearing,” according to the press release.

The allegations involved Gallon, then a South Plainfield resident, declaring under oath that the two assistants and their children lived with him while the children attended a local school, the prosecutor’s office said. The assistants actually lived elsewhere, according to the prosecutor’s office.

The lies allowed the children to attend school in South Plainfield, costing that district $10,500 during a five-month period, after which the children were moved to a school where they actually lived.

After their arrests, Gallon and his two assistants took a deal that allowed them to enter a pretrial intervention program with the condition they never work for New Jersey public schools in exchange for their charges being dismissed, according to New Jersey media reports. Gallon’s two assistants repaid the money, according to a news report in New Jersey.

‘What benefit or gain was there?’

In a statement, Gallon blames his troubles on politics.

“Due to politics I was accused of allowing my two godsons – ages 6 and 7 to reside with me and legally attend school in my area for a brief period of time. Where I’m from we take care of our children and provide shelter and support where needed. I was making $225,000 a year. The parents were making six figures. What benefit or gain was there? There was no ‘theft’ and the school district they were enrolled [in] can attest to that.”

Gallon said he decided to leave New Jersey because of its “slow wheels of justice” and to “attend to my mother whose health was failing.”

He also claimed that “no one was banned from working in New Jersey,” though public records and media reports indicate otherwise.

Following a review by the New Jersey Department of Education’s Board of Examiners Gallon’s administrator certificates were revoked in June 2012. A department document states the board upheld the provision Gallon signed in the “consent agreement” to “never seek nor accept employment in any New Jersey public school or public system.”

In August 2014, a New Jersey state appellate court turned down a request by Gallon’s two assistants, Kelly and Kemp, to revoke the ban prohibiting them from working in state public schools.

After the controversy in New Jersey, Gallon and his company, Tri-Star Leadership, were hired in June 2011 to provide educational services at three charter schools in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, according to a June 2014 story in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The paper said that by the end of summer 2012 Gallon had obtained positions for the two associates arrested and banned from working in the New Jersey public schools, made payroll decisions without approval of the three charter school boards and entered into a business with one of the volunteer board members of a charter school.

Despite the controversy surrounding the three schools, state ethics officials found that no laws had been broken.

Two of the three charter schools, Success Academy in Fort Lauderdale and Excel Leadership Academy in West Palm Beach, shut down in the summer of 2013. Miami’s Stellar Leadership Academy remains active.

Gallon said the three schools had management problems before his company was hired. “I had no authority to hire, fire, pay, or even write checks at either school,” Gallon said in his statement.

Nothing “improper or illegal” occurred, he said.

Florida education on trial; Lawsuit seeks to redefine public education to benefit poor

By Eric Barton, FloridaBulldog.org flaed

A case that could fundamentally change how Florida funds and administers education is center stage in a trial that begins next Monday in a Tallahassee courtroom.

The lawsuit, brought by a public advocacy group, wants a judge to declare the state’s public education system unconstitutional. Such a ruling could require lawmakers to envision a new way to fund schools that would seek better parity between the rich and the poor.

The trial is expected to be a rebuke of Florida’s public education system. Parents, teachers, school administrators and a slew of experts will seek to prove the state has failed to provide a quality education to public school students.

In its defense, the state will attempt to demonstrate that Florida’s public schools are among the best in the nation. In a written response to inquiries from the FloridaBulldog.org, Meghan Collins, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, claimed the lawsuit “ignores the success we have had in Florida schools.

“Working with local education officials, the state remains focused on providing every student in Florida with the opportunity to receive a great education,” Collins wrote.

Critics, however, say Florida schools fail minority and poor students, a fact that’s reflected in graduation rates.

“There are some serious inequities, especially for African-American students and students where English is a second language, in Florida public schools,” said H. Richard Milner, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert for the plaintiffs. “Structures and mechanisms are not in place to make sure poor and minority students are not underserved in the state.”

Leon County Circuit Judge Gene Reynolds III

Leon County Circuit Judge Gene Reynolds III

The non-jury trial that begins March 14, and is likely to last five weeks, will be presided over by Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds III. The trial stems from a lawsuit filed in 2009 by Citizens for Strong Schools. The little-known nonprofit was formed in 2008 in hopes of improving education in Alachua County where it supported a local property tax increase passed by voters to help pay for public schools. It has since raised about $12 million annually.

A constitutional amendment

The suit backers pin their case on a constitutional amendment voters passed in 1998 that declares education of children “to be a fundamental value” and requires the state to make education a “paramount duty.” The amendment says the state must “make adequate provision for a uniform system of free public schools” within “an efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system.”

The amendment, however, doesn’t define what the state must do to live up to that requirement. Using a set of statistics and experts, the plaintiffs contend the state has failed its public school students. Perhaps most damaging to the state’s cause: Florida ranks among the lowest states in the nation in per-pupil funding, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Attorney Neil Chonin Photo: University of Florida, Bob Graham Center

Attorney Neil Chonin
Photo: University of Florida, Bob Graham Center

The lead attorney representing the group is Neil Chonin, a lawyer for 54 years who retired from his Miami firm to work for Southern Legal Counsel, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Gainesville. The three-attorney office faces a team of lawyers from the Florida Attorney General’s Office. “This is certainly a David versus Goliath case,” Chonin said from his Tallahassee office.

Florida’s lead is Jonathan A. Glogau, special counsel chief of the Attorney General’s Complex Litigation Office. He declined comment, as did the Attorney General’s spokesperson.

Department of Education spokeswoman Collins, in a written response, noted that Florida “has had historic K-12 funding for the last two years.” That repeats a claim Gov. Rick Scott made in October, apparently in reference to the over-all education budget, which supporters say has reached its highest level in recent years.

However, it’s a claim PolitiFact Florida ranked false, because per-student spending is lower than it was in the 2007-2008 school year and is dramatically down when accounting for inflation.

In court documents, the state has indicated it plans to call 16 witnesses, mostly state-level administrators, including Pamela Stewart, the Florida Department of Education commissioner. The state will also use several experts, including from the conservative, but nonpartisan Hoover Institution and the University of Arkansas. Also expected to take the stand in support of the state will be Frank Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania state system of higher education and former Florida lieutenant governor. Brogan didn’t return an email and phone message left at his office, and the state’s other experts declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

successA key to the state’s defense will be to insist that it’s reasonable to assume some schools and some students will underperform. “To the extent that deficiencies exist in certain schools, those deficiencies are not caused by nor can they be remedied” by the state, Glogau wrote in Florida’s response to the lawsuit.

The state will also employ statistics to show successes of Florida’s education system. Collins noted in her statement that Florida’s high school graduation rate has increased 18 percentage points since the 2003-04 school year. Over that period, the graduation rate for black and Hispanic students has increased 22 percentage points.

The plaintiffs, however, plan to show that there’s another side to those statistics and that Florida nevertheless remains nine percentage points below the national graduation rate of 80 percent. Only six states and the District of Columbia have lower graduation rates than Florida.

Worse for minorities and poor

Chonin says it’s worse for minorities and the poor. Only 59 percent of black students graduate in Florida, compared to the national average of 67 percent. It’s similar for economically disadvantaged students, with only 60 percent graduating, compared to a national average of 70 percent.

“It blew me away when I first started realizing how many kids in the state can’t read and don’t graduate,” Chonin said. “It’s time we hold the state accountable for failing these kids.”

Milner, the University of Pittsburgh professor, said the case could become a landmark rebuke of public education and could set the standard for similar lawsuits elsewhere in the country.

Rarely has the quality of public education been subject to such a public tribunal, and Milner said the closest comparison may be the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which led to school desegregation. While the Florida case likely won’t lead to any national changes, it could expose flaws in the practice of desegregation, Milner said.

“Schools in Florida are largely still not integrated, with rich white communities providing far better education than poor black schools,” Milner said. “There are still major inequities in public education in Florida, and this lawsuit threatens to expose that.”

Chonin said he can prove at trial that the state has violated the constitutional amendment because it has failed to provide a “uniform and efficient” public school system. The state, Chonin said, funds education using local taxpayers, meaning poorer counties have fewer resources.

“You have counties like Sarasota or Palm Beach that have high property taxes, and then you compare them to Gadsden or Savannah or Jefferson counties,” Chonin said. “Their taxes are far less, and because of that, the performance of their schools can’t compare.”

Jonthan A. Glogau, special counsel at the Florida Attorney General's Office.

Jonthan A. Glogau, special counsel at the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

The plaintiffs will claim the state’s testing methodology is unfair to minorities and serves only to hurt the education process. They have listed 70 potential witnesses, with 40 who could appear in person at the trial. The list includes several instructors. Among them is Alachua County kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles, who refused in 2014 to administer the state’s standardized tests and garnered headlines and public support for her decision. Also expected to testify is Chris Guerrieri, the Jacksonville teacher who writes a blog critical of the state’s education bureaucracy.

School administrators also are expected to take the stand in support of the plaintiffs, including superintendents from Franklin, Hernando, Duval and Alachua counties.

If Citizens for Strong Schools succeeds at the non-jury trial, Judge Reynolds has wide leeway in what he could order. The lawsuit asks the judge to declare that the state has failed to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide a quality education, especially to disadvantaged and minority students. If the judge agrees, he could order the Legislature to rewrite the way education is funded in the state, scrap standardized testing and require new safeguards to assure all students get the same level of education.

Taking sides

Multiple education groups have joined the suit on both sides. Among the groups that oppose portions of the lawsuit is Florida Voices for Choices, which supports voucher programs that allow public school students to attend private schools. Its executive director, former Tampa schoolteacher Catherine Durkin Robinson, says the voucher program lets parents choose the best education model for their children. If lawmakers are forced to create a new funding model for education, voucher programs could be at stake.

“Funding is important, but empowered parents choosing from a robust array of options is more important,” Robinson wrote in an emailed response to questions.

But Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie says the voucher programs have contributed to poor funding for education that has crippled schools in the state. That has meant inadequate salaries for teachers, which leads to more turnover and fewer chances to lure teachers from other professions, he said in a recent interview.

“These are dollars that could positively impact teachers’ salaries and provide a better education for our kids,” Runcie said. “This is not how we should treat the people who are teaching the next generation. Teaching should be a profession like any other where we are providing competitive wages.”

Miami-Dade teacher Liane Harris is expected to testify in support of the lawsuit. She teaches at a Secondary Student Success Center (S3C) in Hialeah, a program for students who have been held behind two or more grades.

In 2014, Harris joined several hundred educators and others in a march in downtown Miami to protest Gov. Scott’s education policies. Harris says the state’s standardized tests have failed low-income kids and cuts from voucher programs have left schools struggling to provide even the basics.

“There are kids being left back, year after year,” Harris said. “These tests and these cuts have failed these children.”

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