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

Standing Pat

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."

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.

This could put the Republicans on the school board (Perla Tabares Hantman, Marta Perez, Demetrio Perez, and Manty Sabates Morse) in a tough spot, much as they were in February, when the board voted 6-2 to formally oppose the governor's voucher plan. (Hantman voted with the five Democrats in the majority, Manty Morse and Demetrio Perez opposed it, and Marta Perez was absent.) Now the Republicans might find themselves faced with the prospect of voting to honor Tornillo, who has been bashing their party's governor. Would Jeb be happy about that? Probably not.

"I don't think that's a factor," Tornillo says of his crusade against Bush's pet project. "This is about what I've contributed in Dade County. A-Plus is a new kid on the block when you compare it with my 30 years of contributions and involvement."

Before the board votes on any school designation, it must pass the naming committee, which consists of chairman Stinson and two other members: one from the district where the school is located and another from a district selected by the chairman. The FIU site, currently designated State School D-1, is located within District 8, home of Marta Perez. The committee will meet at a time appointed by the chairman, then forward its recommendation to the board. Two of the three committee members must approve the idea for it to proceed.

Marta Perez has openly and loudly criticized the current policy. "She's always said that she doesn't believe in naming schools for people who are alive," says Gustavo de Zendegui, Perez's chief of staff. Perez favors designating the FIU location for Carlos Finlay, a Cuban scientist who made breakthroughs in yellow fever research.

Party politics and Tornillo's longevity will not be the only factors in the decision. Pat Tornillo's UTD is a generous campaign donor, and the union opens its coffers to Republicans as well as Democrats. Seven of the nine sitting board members received endorsement and contributions from state and local unions in their most recent campaigns. (Neither Marta Perez nor Demetrio Perez got such backing.) The politicians are well aware of Tornillo's power and influence.

So here's the dilemma: Name the school after Tornillo and alienate Bush, or don't, and alienate Tornillo. Neither is a tempting option for a sitting politician.

Manty Morse, for one, has chosen. "This puts school board members in an awkward position, but I would vote no," says Morse, past chairwoman of the Dade Republican party. "That school is right there on the FIU campus, so I think it should be named after something dealing with the university."



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