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Politics and Reform Highlight Weingarten's Florida Visit

A two-day visit to South Florida by AFT president Randi Weingarten featured a series of meetings with AFT members and leaders, top school administrators, and faith and community leaders—as well as plenty of discussion about the state of politics in Florida and in the nation.

Randi Weingarten in Broward County

Weingarten addresses a meeting of Broward Teachers Union building stewards. Photo by Eric Gzimalowski.

Events on Jan. 17 took place in Broward County, where the AFT-affiliated Broward Teachers Union has more than 11,000 teachers and school support staff. Weingarten spoke to a packed auditorium of BTU building representatives, who were meeting for the first time since the AFT assumed control of the local in November at the request of the executive board after complaints of financial irregularities and allegations of improper BTU political contributions.

Materials at the meeting all featured the union's new motto, "BTU: Moving Forward." As AFT administrator John Tarka told the activists, "The sole purpose of this administratorship is to return the union to you. We've made progress, but we have a lot more to do."

Following remarks by state federation president and AFT vice president Andy Ford, who outlined the series of destructive legislative and budget proposals coming from the governor and the state Legislature, as well as the union's aggressive efforts to fight back, Weingarten moved the discussion to what's happening in national politics. The other side is doing everything in its power to destroy us, she said. "They know there's something really special when labor has a voice at the ballot box and at the bargaining table, and they've tried to destroy that."

Organized labor might not have the dollars to compete with big corporations and super PACs, she said, but our armies of volunteers and our vital connections to community allies can make the difference in next fall's elections. In an extended discussion at the end of the meeting, Weingarten and Tarka fielded questions not only about politics, but also about the prospects of a pay raise for educators who have gone four years without a raise, while enduring increases in healthcare and retirement costs.

Weingarten later spoke at a joint dinner that featured the leaders of the BTU, the United Teachers of Dade and the United Faculty of Miami Dade College—the first time the three AFT affiliates had held such a gathering.

Randi Weingarten in Dade County

Randi Weingarten greets teachers at Holmes Elementary School in Dade County, along with United Teachers of Dade president Karen Aronowitz. Photo by Terry Hann.

Jan. 18 took Weingarten to neighboring Dade County, where she toured Holmes Elementary School and held a luncheon meeting with an impressive cross section of community and faith leaders in the Liberty City neighborhood. Holmes, a school in which 100 percent of the students are low-income and minority, has made steady progress on the state's accountability ratings but remains under threat of reorganization because of a flawed accountability system. Weingarten and UTD leaders met with principal Atunya Walker and assistant superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is in charge of the district's Education Transformation Office to turn around low-performing schools.

Vitti said one reason for the school's steady progress on academic measures has been a solid working relationship with the union. "Our work hasn't been about a quick fix," he said. "It's about good teaching and learning and constantly refining that." He also acknowledged problems with the way the state grades and categorizes schools, so that a school like Holmes which has consistently earned C grades on the state measures is under threat of closure.

Following stops in a few classrooms, which are staffed by a combination of veterans and newcomers from Teach for America, Weingarten held a candid discussion with a group of teachers at the school, who had mixed views of how the school is progressing under the direction of the Education Transformation Office. One problem, they said, is that an approach designed to improve almost two dozen district schools has led to top-down changes and lots of new programs that don't take into account each building's unique strengths. One result is that some successful programs have been abandoned, and some solid veteran staff have been transferred to other schools.

"You need to be not just listened to, but heard," Weingarten said in response to the teachers' comments. She promised to work with UTD and the school and district administration to figure out ways to make sure teachers' voices are heard in the reform process. "I can see the work that you are doing here every day for the kids," she added. "Teachers here and across the country are not appreciated enough for the work they do."

Faith leaders at luncheon

Community and faith leaders listen as Weingarten speaks at a luncheon at the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church. Photo by Terry Hann.

Weingarten's visit ended with a luncheon at the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church, an impressive building under the leadership of the Rev. Carl Johnson. Weingarten, UTD president Karen Aronowitz and UTD secretary-treasurer Fedrick Ingram (who grew up in the neighborhood and attended Holmes Elementary) all spoke to the approximately 25 representatives from other churches, parent groups, community organizations and businesses. "When we work hand in hand, no one can divide us," Weingarten said. "We can't do this alone."

The other leaders in attendance commented on a range of issues, from charter schools to state budget cuts to economic development. Marlene Bastien, the founder and director of Haitian Women of Miami, urged the group to use "our collective, powerful voices to save public education." One way to do that, she said, is to figure out how to help turn parents in the community "into big, powerful squeaky wheels" advocating for schools and children. [Dan Gursky]

January 19, 2012