TAMPA, Fla. — The Hillsborough School District is one of the largest in the nation, and its teachers' union represents tens of thousands of workers. When Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans which could impact the state’s teachers' unions, it immediately raised concerns.
“It does feel like a personal attack,” said Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
“I feel like the governor is coming after teachers’ unions. We are on the front line of trying to fight for the schools our students deserve. And quite frankly, it feels like he’s trying to cut us off at our knees.”
On Monday, DeSantis announced plans that Kriete says would undermine the union’s bargaining power.
The governor presented the proposed changes while promoting $1 billion in teacher pay raises.
“We are also going to be advancing proposals to make sure the teachers’ paychecks are protected,” DeSantis said. “They are not going to have, if we do these reforms, automatic deductions for school union dues.”
Union members say that idea is designed to defund them. They’re already working on an alternative plan.
“Every single member we have to go back to and say we were taking those dues from your paycheck. But now, we’re going to have to find another way to do it,” Kriete said. “We are doing this in a state where people elect to be part of their union they do want to be part of what we do.
"I mean, we are advocating. We are the quality control for public education in the district and in the state. So, educators want to be part of that. We’ve always had it that way. We have been a right-to-work state. So, all he is doing is reconfirming that which is historically always been. We don’t understand it."
The governor’s plan would also cap salaries for union workers at a level no higher than the district’s highest-paid teacher.
”You know, if you’re someone working for a school union, you should not be making any more than what the highest-paid teacher is making,” DeSantis said. “And that’s just, you have these people making huge amounts of money and the teachers are making half of that amount of money. How is that fair? How is that something that makes sense?”
Kriete responds, “I make the highest teacher salary for 12 months. That’s what I make us a salary as the president of the Hillsborough classroom teachers association. Proudly, quite frankly.
"I think he’s trying to point out or make a narrative that doesn’t really exist that we are union bosses. That somehow I landed here and came from some other entity to lead this work against the district or the state. Which is not true.”
The governor’s plan would also force unions to negotiate by a set deadline or risk losing the money earmarked for the promised pay raises.
“A lot of this is school unions playing games with a lot of their stuff. That is wrong. When you have money on the table to be able to increase teacher pay that should be the first thing you’re trying to do to get that money out,” DeSantis said. “We may say you need to use this by a certain point or lose it because this haggling over it and keeping the teachers and their salary increases hostage for other issues, I just think it’s wrong. And I think it hurts teachers when we need to be helping teachers.”
Kriete says, “Collective bargaining is based on the idea that both sides are equal and have to come together to make an agreement. If it’s time-sensitive and the other side automatically gets what they want what is the motivation for them to actually bargain in good faith? So, we question that. We feel that that is unfair.”
Kriete says the governor is portraying the teachers’ unions unfairly and inaccurately. He’s not a union boss, he said. He’s a teacher.
“It’s spinning wheels a lot and trying to create a narrative that doesn’t exist. You know, we as a union, we are trying to bring people together and have conversations about how to improve that what you were dealing with,” Kriete said. “Once again, we are the quality control for the district and the schools in the state. And we desperately need that.”
The governor also talked about restricting union discussions or distributing materials during school hours as well as imposing term limits for school board members, decreasing it from 12 years to eight.
“The fact is you get in there, you have ideas, eight years is enough to get your ideas in and to see some of the successes or maybe things you need to change,” DeSantis said.
Kriete responds, “He wants to keep the quality controllers out of the schools and out of this, because they want to be able to run the table and do whatever they wish. It’s more politics than anything is what we believe.”