The Old School of Power

He has been enormously influential for 34 years, yet Pat Tornillo -- politically astute leader of Dade's teachers' union -- remains a mystery to most

At that time Dade's Classroom Teachers Association (CTA) was linked to the National Education Association, whose members considered it a professionals' organization rather than a union. But a small number of local teachers, many of whom had moved to Florida from the Northeast, had formed their own group, the Dade Federation of Teachers, and affiliated themselves with the national American Federation of Teachers, which was a member of the AFL-CIO. Tornillo came to believe that such linkage would grant teachers more power, and so he proposed to merge the CTA and the Dade Federation. But there was a problem: National Education Association bylaws prohibited any affiliation with labor unions such as the AFL-CIO. The membership, under Tornillo's influence, decided to merge the unions anyway, a move that divided educators throughout the state.

Teacher John Ryor of Tallahassee eventually headed the group that fought labor-union affiliation. "It became a contest," he recalls. "Tornillo became the titular leader of those who wanted AFL-CIO affiliation. There ensued a competition between those loyal to the National Education Association and those loyal to what Pat wanted."

In 1974 Tornillo and the union membership created the United Teachers of Dade, a new, labor-affiliated union. He and his officers also persuaded teachers in other counties to join Dade's members in forming a new, statewide group called FEA-United. Over time only about half the teachers' groups in the state aligned with FEA-United, but because it represents three of Florida's largest metropolitan areas, its clout is significant.

During the Eighties, public education in America came under intense scrutiny. The U.S. Department of Education in 1983 issued a report concluding that the nation's education system was failing to prepare students for college or the workplace. Tornillo headed a committee for the American Federation of Teachers charged with identifying the source of this failure and proposing solutions. The committee's report, released in Washington, D.C., in 1985, argued that teachers needed the support of the entire community if they were to succeed. Moreover, Tornillo's committee determined, key decisions about how schools should be run were best made locally, not by some distant state or federal bureaucracy. Later that year the Carnegie Forum released a widely publicized report that reached similar conclusions.

In Miami the union chief set about challenging the traditional dominion of principals and administrators. He wanted district administrators to allow local schools more autonomy in their operations, and he wanted principals to allow teachers a role in school management. With two national reports backing his assertions that teachers needed more power, Tornillo persuaded Superintendent Leonard Britton to grant them greater influence. In 1985 Tornillo and Britton negotiated the first contract requiring principals to share their authority with teachers. The next superintendent, Joseph A. Fernandez, wanted to do even more to help local communities design their schools the best way possible, a reform effort that eventually came to be known as school-based management. "We realized that if we wanted to make a difference in public schools, you weren't going to do it alone," Fernandez says today. "We had to bring as many people to the table as possible."

But no enlightened reform could solve the problems caused by Dade's burgeoning student population. The district literally could not build schools fast enough. Fernandez and Tornillo implored business leaders to donate space for new schools, and a few did. But that project helped only a small percentage of students. In 1988 administrators realized that somehow they had to find more money for school construction, the most likely method being a mammoth bond issue that would have to be approved by voters -- a risky proposition in this notoriously anti-tax state. Because state law prohibited the school district itself from promoting the bond idea in an advertising campaign, Fernandez turned to Tornillo for help. The UTD boss accepted the challenge and hired veteran political consultants Phil Hamersmith and Jacqueline Basha to mount a campaign that relied heavily on help from Dade's teachers. It was a remarkable success. The $900 million bond issue passed in March 1988.

The national recognition Dade schools garnered as a result of innovative reforms and the monumental construction program helped Fernandez take a step up to run New York City's public school district, the largest in the nation. It also eventually helped Tornillo persuade the legislature to incorporate into state law portions of Dade's school-based management plan.

But the ambitious plan to implement school-based management and allow local communities more say in the education process has worked only where principals have agreed to relinquish some of their authority. Student test scores remain below average, parents have not received the training that would allow them to make informed decisions about their children's schools, and civic leaders continue to fret about the quality of public education in Dade County.

"I've been its strongest advocate and its severest critic," Tornillo says of school-based management. "Principals have paid lip service to it and they don't really want parental involvement. They put up obstacles, and teachers get frustrated to the extent that it may get really laborious in terms of the amount of meetings, the amount of time spent. At the same time I don't think there are any alternatives, so you have to keep working at it. Once it is achieved and it's functioning, it is extremely difficult for anyone to get it off the track."

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