Standing Pat

The school board may vote to name a school after a powerful union boss. That's politics, baby.

 The Pat L. Tornillo, Jr., Elementary School.

Think that name has a nice ring to it? Florida International University president Modesto "Mitch" Maidique does. In May he wrote a letter to the Miami-Dade County School Board recommending that a new elementary on the FIU campus be named for Tornillo, long-time leader of the county teachers union.

"Hey, I feel very honored," says Tornillo, executive vice president of the United Teachers of Dade (UTD). "I think it's going to be a great place, and I really like the idea of being associated with FIU. It'll be a really wonderful thing, if and when it happens."

A school may soon bear union chief Pat Tornillo's name, but it won't happen without a fight
Steve Satterwhite
A school may soon bear union chief Pat Tornillo's name, but it won't happen without a fight

The 74-year-old Tornillo has spent 36 years leading his union, which has 18,500 members and represents the district's approximately 28,000 teachers. He holds political sway in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., and looms particularly large in Miami-Dade at election time, when the union doles out campaign contributions to favored candidates in $500 chunks.

The school board, which could vote on naming Tornillo elementary as soon as August, has in the past shown little compunction about designating schools for its members. G. Holmes Braddock, William Turner, Robert Renick, and Michael M. Krop all have had schools named for them during their respective tenures. (Braddock and Krop are still on the board.) Thus it seems unlikely that members would balk at so honoring Tornillo.

"I personally think Pat is well deserving of this," Braddock says. "He's been a very effective union and educational leader. He does his posturing before the board at times, but it's not his job to please us. It's his job to represent the teachers."

The school board once had a policy that forbade it from christening schools for living people or politicians currently in office. Over the years that policy has been waived, eroded, and amended. The present rule, rewritten in 1996, allows the board to name a school after pretty much anyone it pleases, dead or alive.

Tornillo acknowledges his political role, but denies that position should preclude the designation. "It's not any more of a conflict than voting for naming a school for any board member," he points out.

The odd thing about the FIU school (at SW Eighth Street and 117th Avenue) is that it already had a name. In October 1996 the board voted to call it Hubert O. Sibley Elementary, for the head of the Dade County Public School Employees Federal Credit Union. The then-seven-member board approved the idea by a 4-3 vote.

In December 1996 a jury found Sibley, now 79 years old, liable for civil theft. (Board members: "Doh!") Jurors ordered him to pay a $1.45 million judgment. Sibley appealed the decision and in July 1998, the Third District Court of Appeal overturned the verdict. (Board members: "Whew!") And though Sibley's name was associated with the school throughout the legal battle, the board this past March shifted Sibley's name to an elementary school that is being built adjacent to Barry University, says Paul Phillips, the district's chief facilities officer. The FIU school again was nameless.

Six weeks later FIU president Maidique tossed Pat Tornillo's appellation in the ring. In a letter to school board chairman Solomon C. Stinson, Maidique lauded Tornillo as a champion of teachers and children alike. He also noted that FIU had already administered a "major scholarship endowment" in Tornillo's name. "The dedication of the Pat L. Tornillo, Jr., Public School at FIU would further recognize his many achievements," Maidique wrote.

"[Maidique] submitted that letter on behalf of the university," says Paul Gallagher, the university's senior vice president of business and finance. "The naming is up to Dade County Public Schools, but superintendent [Roger] Cuevas asked us for input. After some discussion [Maidique] decided [the designation] could be a good thing. Pat was an educator for many years, and a strong supporter of education, not only in South Florida, but on the state and national levels.

"His is a name we'd feel good about having affixed to a building on our campus," Gallagher adds.

Some school board observers are not quite so sanguine. "I don't think the board should name schools for people actively engaged in the decision-making process, and Pat definitely is engaged," says former board member Janet McAliley. "It should be a decision reached after he's no longer in a position of being a major political player."

McAliley notes that she and Tornillo differed on many issues when she was in office. But she still thinks the union boss merits consideration someday. "In some ways he is more deserving of that honor than some of the school board members," she says. "I think he has been an enlightened and often courageous union leader."

Still, plastering Tornillo's name on a school is politically problematic. First, it creates a partisan dilemma for the four Republicans on the nine-member board. During the 1999 legislative session, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush successfully championed a controversial education-reform package. Called the A-Plus Plan, it includes a voucher program that would allow parents to remove kids from "failing" public schools and place them in another school, public or private.

Numerous community and professional organizations, including the NAACP, the ACLU, People for the American Way, and the state PTA, have joined in a Leon County lawsuit against the voucher provisions of the A-Plus Plan. The state teachers union is preparing a court challenge to A-Plus, and Pat Tornillo is among the most vocal and powerful opponents of school vouchers.

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