Budget cuts prompt some Brevard teachers to join new union

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BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. - A small but growing number of teachers in Brevard Public Schools are defecting from the ranks of the local teachers union.

Local 6 partner Florida Today reports Brevard Teachers for Change, a handful of teachers, reached out to and joined a union that represents civilian workers in the Brevard County Sheriff's Office and a number of local governments: The Coastal Florida Public Employees Association.

Now those teachers want Coastal Florida to win the right to negotiate their next contract, not the Brevard Federation of Teachers. They're gathering signatures to bring it to a vote among the district's 5,000 teachers — a move known as a takeover.

The effort has caused a split among educators, with each side accusing the other of misinformation, bullying and intimidation. It comes at a difficult time for the district, which is making $30 million in budget cuts, affecting schools, staff and special programs.

It's unclear exactly how big the rift is. Four teachers started the defection to Coastal Florida this spring. Both unions declined to share membership numbers. Coastal Florida said that teachers are a small but growing part of the union, while BFT said they traditionally represent about half of Brevard's 5,000 teachers.

The divide appears to have its roots in a controversial concession by BFT that allowed nearly 200 teaching positions to be cut and $11 million saved: Middle and high school teachers are forfeiting a second planning period next school year, which increases their workload to six of seven class periods instead of five.

"We were greatly disappointed by the negotiation procedures, we felt that it was not a thoughtful decision that had been made," said Kim Hunt, a math teacher at Space Coast Jr./Sr. High who joined Coastal Florida. "It was all about raises ... there were more dangerous ramifications."

Teachers leading the movement expressed concern about what the loss of the planning period will mean for students, from the effect on academics to the number of adults supervising students on campus.

"There's not a lot of respect for our time and what we need to do to keep our district one of the top in the nation," said Dana DeSantis, a first-grade teacher at Manatee Elementary.

Dan Bennett, BFT's chief negotiator, said that the district's budget cuts overshadowed negotiations this winter. Keeping the second planning period would have forced other cuts — including, potentially, the lost of elementary art and music.

Frustrated with what she saw as an unwillingness to explore other alternatives or respond to member concerns, Hunt said she asked BFT to delay the contract ratification vote. Bennett, however, described the exchange as an "aggressive" attempt to disrupt and unravel their progress.

The teachers union won a 1 percent bonus for teachers this past school year and a 1.5 percent raise next year, a victory its leaders said they thought would fall apart if negotiations dragged on. The contract was approved with a 68 percent "yes" vote.

Philip Dine, a labor expert and author of "State of the Unions," said that it's not unusual for unions to battle over the right to represent workers — or for a union to represent seemingly unrelated employee fields.

"Workers frequently feel that another union can do a better job or is more suited for their needs," he said, explaining that such shifts can occur for a variety of reasons.

Typically, the first step for teachers unhappy with their union is to elect a new president, said Dara Zeehandelaar, a research manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.

Hunt said that they tried to make changes from within, including having another teacher run for a top leadership position. But the member had not attended enough executive board meetings to qualify. In addition, there was not a procedure to remove someone from union office, she said.

Now, their focus is on growing membership. It's the first time teachers have joined Coastal Florida, which represents law enforcement and government agencies in 11 counties.

They also will gather signatures on a petition seeking a vote to determine who will negotiate the next contract. Signatures from 30 percent of eligible members are needed to call for a vote, which would put three options before teachers: Keep BFT, change to Coastal Florida, or have no union at all.

A majority vote would decide. If no winner emerges, Steve Meck, general counsel for Florida's Public Employees Relations Commission, said that a second vote would be taken on the two most popular options.

"The argument being made is that, somehow or another, they'll do better," said Richard Smith, president of the teachers union. "I would simply point out that that's not so."

School District spokeswoman Michelle Irwin declined to comment, except to say that Brevard Public Schools will negotiate with whomever teachers chose to represent them.