Hillsborough teachers fight for promised raise

Teachers protest outside the Hillsborough County School Board meeting in downtown Tampa. The protest focused revolved around the school board’s decision to not provide a previously promised raise to qualified teachers. Photo by Justin Garcia.

Hundreds of public school teachers gathered at a recent school board meeting to demand higher pay.

Protesting teachers and supporters surrounded the Hillsborough district school board meeting off of Kennedy Avenue in downtown Tampa.  Most of the crowd was dressed in matching blue Hillsborough County Teacher’s Association shirts.  Many held signs reading ‘fair pay for fair work’ and ‘honor the contract.’

The messages on their signs referenced the school board’s recent decision to not pay the $4,000 a year wage increase promised to qualified teachers in their contracts.

“I’ve been teaching here for three years and have seen an increase to my salary of only $200,” said Britney Wegman, a teacher at Riverhills Elementary in Temple Terrace and rally organizer. “This is the year to get an increase and they’re telling me that there is no money. I’m here to stand up for other teachers in this position, I’m here to stand up for other school workers, who are, a lot of them, not making a living wage.”

Many Hillsborough teachers will be “working the contract” for the week after Thanksgiving, which means they will only work the hours that are required of them in their contract.

“It’s essentially showing the kind of work teachers do after class and before class, and what kind of impact that will have,”  Wegman said.

The school board said the money for the raise isn’t there.   Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins read from a prepared statement inside the school board meeting, “A lot of you are saying, ‘Just find the money for more raises somewhere.’  I hear you,” Eakins said.  “Here’s the issue: we’re not starting from a healthy, balanced budget. We’ve been starting way behind, every year, for several years.”

According to Eakins and the school board, state funding isn’t keeping up with Hillsborough County school growth.  Twenty years ago, the district had to add new schools and buildings due to growth and to comply with the class-size amendment.  They didn’t receive any state funding to help with the effort.

“That means right now we owe a billion dollars from new construction 20 years ago and we have a billion dollars in deferred maintenance,” Eakins said.

The school board maintains that the funding is not available because of funding decisions made at the state level.  On the same day the protest took place in Tampa, Governor Rick Scott proposed a major increase to school funding for 2018.  Earlier this year, Scott signed HB  7069, which directs more tax money to go to charter schools.

According to data from the Florida Department of Education,  the average teacher salary in Hillsborough is $49,910.

The average salary for teachers in Hillsborough county is $49,910.18 for the 2016-17 school year, according to the Florida Department of Education.

 

Along with teachers, students showed up at the school board meeting in support of their teachers.  The week before the board meeting, students began walking out of class in protest of the school board’s decision.

“I’m here to support my teachers who dedicate their lives and are completely devoted to my education.  They deserve a lot better from our school district,” said Graham Shelor, a student at Blake High School who showed up to protest with teachers. “And it’s not only them, students, staff, everyone under our public school system is very much affected by this.”

USF adjuncts petition to unionize, university leadership resists

Adjuncts demonstrate outside of Marshall Student Center on Oct. 12. Photo by Mike Ruso.

Adjunct teachers at USF are in the midst of a campaign since April to establish a union, but not without resistance from the administration.

Months of effort have culminated to a legal standstill as USF pushes to block a vote for adjuncts to unionize. Tenure-track faculty positions are becoming harder to find, adjunct professors are making up an increasingly important part of the academic workforce. They fill in gaps by teaching classes other faculty members can’t teach or accommodate for last-minute changes or additions of classes. USF is attempting to prevent adjunct faculty from unionizing on the grounds that they are temporary employees.

Adjuncts at USF submitted a petition to unionize to the state of Florida’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) in April.  This petition was filed in conjunction with Faculty Forward, which is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

In pushing for this union, adjunct professors, Faculty Forward and SEIU say adjunct professors aren’t compensated properly for their work and that establishing an adjunct professor’s union will help establish a better standard of living for the professors.

USF responded to the petition with legal action, filing with the Florida PERC to block the petition. The USF board of trustees cited Florida Statute 447.307 in a statement in court documents submitted in September.

“Even if the Hearing Officer were to determine that the adjuncts in this case possess an expectation of continued employment, the petitioned-for unit would still be inappropriate, because the USF System adjuncts do not share in a community of interest, as required by (the statute),” the board wrote in the court documents.

In October, as reported in USF St. Petersburg’s The Crow, state hearing officer Lyyli Van Whittle recommended that the state PERC allow adjunct professors to vote to form a union, which Mike Ruso, an adjunct professor in the English department at USF,  said is a step in the right direction.

“The wording of PERC’s decision is so unequivocal in its support for the adjuncts that a vote to form a union is now inevitable,” Ruso said. “The ruling is a major victory not just for us, but for adjuncts across the state because it sets a precedent that adjunct professors  at all Florida universities have the legal right to unionize.”

While they waited for the PERC to make a decision, adjuncts demonstrated by sitting in on a USF board of trustees meeting and then walking out, marching through the Marshall Student Center and protesting in front of the building on Oct. 12.

Since the PERC recommended order, the board of trustees has filed 17 exceptions to the terms of the union vote, which will delay the process of unionization for adjuncts. Caught in a legal battle, the vote cannot happen until the PERC issues its final order.

Faculty Forward and adjuncts sent an email response to the exceptions put forth by USF.

“Due to this change the organizing committee will be changing strategies,” Faculty Forward wrote in the email. “Adjuncts will be deterred, but only will take this time to recalibrate and shift into a better, stronger position.”

Adjuncts sit-in at USF board of trustees meeting on Oct. 12. Photo by Justin Garcia.

The board of trustees at USF does not feel that a union for adjuncts is justified, as outlined in their court submissions. The Tampa Bay Times reports that USF officials are also worried about an adjunct union, not wanting to deal with a third party and concerned about upticks in costs and potential layoffs.

“Though they provide a valuable service in supporting the mission of the university, the USF System believes forming a union is not in the best interests of the adjuncts and continues to oppose this effort,” university spokesman Adam Freeman said in a statement.

According to a 2013 report from NPR about the death of an adjunct professor at Duquesne University, the typical adjunct professor in the United States earns between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.  Ruso said the average adjunct is making $3,000 per class. According to information in court documents submitted to Florida PERC by USF, adjuncts at USF can earn from $2,600 to $12,000, depending on the department and the number of course hours. The course hours can range from three to 12. Adjuncts at USF say that these wages, along with the fact that adjuncts receive no benefits mean that they need a union, whether or not they are temporary employees.

Ruso joined the union movement earlier this year.  As a graduate student, he read the Chronicle of Higher Education and the stories in the publication about adjuncts resonated with him.  

“I read that they drove from campus to campus to teach six, seven or eight classes a semester,” Ruso said. “I read that they didn’t have health insurance. The whole business model of using adjuncts struck me as unjust.”

Ruso said he is still proud to teach at USF but thinks the treatment of adjuncts needs to change.

“I take a lot of pride when I tell someone that I’m a professor at USF, but I don’t think we can truly be a great institution if we have 600 professors who are being exploited, many of whom are living in poverty,” Ruso said.

However, change in the form of voting for a union will have to wait until the PERC gives its ruling.

Renowned journalist condemns ‘alt-right’ speech at University of Florida

Ralph Lowenstein speaks to USF students and staff. Photo by Justin Garcia.

TAMPA-  USF students were visited by a widely respected journalism professor on Tuesday, Nov. 21st, who spoke on the issue of white nationalism and a recent controversial speech in Gainesville.

Retired University of Florida (UF) Dean Emeritus Dr. Ralph Lowenstein spoke to a room full of students and teachers at USF.  He spoke in-depth about white nationalists, in particular Richard Spencer, leader of the ‘alt-right’ movement.

“He [Spencer] believes in ethnic cleansing,” Lowenstein said.  “He doesn’t go much further than that.”

Lowenstein explained that Spencer won the right to speak at UF on October 19th because of free speech under the First Amendment.

“Those of you who are journalism students know that there are lots of exceptions to the First Amendment,” Lowenstein said.  “ You can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre.  You can’t engage in hate speech that will set people off to do damage to people.”

In August of this year, Spencer co-organized the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Va. which became violent.  Many were injured and Heather Heyer, who was there to protest the alt-right, was killed when a man drove his vehicle into the crowd of protestors.

Spencer and his legal team feel that their speech is defended under the First Amendment.  Gary Edinger is Spencer’s attorney who defended his right to speak at UF.

“This was no doubt a sensitive and difficult issue for the University of Florida,” Edinger said.  “But all citizens should be pleased that the First Amendment was ultimately respected.”

Spencer says that his ideas are controversial because they are powerful.  He claims that it is not the alt-right who are violent, but the groups who oppose them.  He says this frees him from the possibility of his speech being censored due to the threat of violence from the alt-right.

“This is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to free speech,” Spencer said.  “If you can’t protect the free speech of a controversial speaker then you don’t really believe in free speech.”

Protesters demonstrate outside of Spencer speech. Photo by Justin Garcia.

UF students and others who oppose Spencer interrupted his speech inside the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts with chants such as, “Say it loud, say it clear: Nazis are not welcome here.” Outside of the speech, over 2,500 protesters against Spencer demonstrated around the Phillips Center.  The protests were mainly peaceful, except for a shooting which occurred near the event.

Lowenstein described the shooting, “Students who were demonstrating went to an intersection  near the Phillips auditorium,” Lowenstein said. “Three of these alt-right people… approached them at a bus stop.  One of them pulled a gun and fired the gun, thank heaven it missed and it [the bullet] went into a nearby building.”

One of the victims who was fired upon remembered the license plate of the vehicle the men were in and gave it to the police, who stopped them on the interstate. The three men, Tyler Tenbrink, Colton Fears and William Fears were accused of attempted homicide and are being held at Alachua County Jail.

Richard Spencer and the alt-right have yet to release a statement on the shooting.

Lowenstein made it clear during his discussion with students at USF that speakers such as Spencer should be resisted at colleges not only for the sake of the integrity of the university, but also to protect the well-being of those exposed to members of the alt-right.

“I feel that the University of Florida acted improperly,” Lowenstein said. “They actually turned down this man because of the threat of violence.   Then when their attorney threatened to file suit against them, they caved in completely, instead of taking it up to a federal court, at least for the benefit of the students and faculty.”

Plant City police purchase faces opposition

PLANT CITY- Plant City council voted to approve the 2017-2018 budget this week, which included a $335,000 military tactical vehicle for the police department.

Council members approved the funding for the military vehicle in a unanimous 5-0 vote.

The vote was opposed by the Restorative Justice, a grassroots advocacy group based out of Hillsborough County.  Its mission is to create a restorative justice system opposed to a punitive one. The group’s co-founder, Angel D’Angelo, says there are issues occurring within the Plant City police force that need more attention.

“Aside from the fact that it’s militarizing the police and that’s problematic in itself, what really got to us is Police Chief Ed Duncan had taken away both body and dash cams from Plant City, due to the cost of implementation and maintenance,” D’Angelo said. “If our calculations are correct, it would cost about $65,000 to implement body and dash cams for all 70 police officers in Plant City.”

Angel D’Angelo, co-founder of Restorative Justice Coalition (Courtesy of Angeldangelo.com).

For months, members of the community have shown up to Plant City council meetings to speak about what they say is the police department’s lack of transparency. Fifteen people made statements regarding the lack of trust between the community’s citizens and police at the council’s most recent meeting.

Plant City Mayor Rick Lott was confronted by upset members of the community who were against the decision.

Before entering his vehicle he stopped and said, “I can’t believe you’d shout at me like this, after all I’ve done for you.”

The city council, mayor and police department were contacted but did not comment on the situation.

Issues with the Plant City Police Department surfaced earlier this year. On July 6, Plant City resident Jesus Cervantes called 911.  Cervantes was distressed and asking for help.

According to the police department, when officers approached the vehicle Cervantes reached for something, and the officer then fired his weapon – resulting in a fatal accident.

Cervantes’ family and friends were devastated. They were contacted by groups such as the Restorative Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter, who began to investigate the incident. Because there are no body or dash cameras on the Plant City police force, many questions began to surface.  The activist groups released a list of demands to the police, including the call for body cams on police and an external investigation into the Cervantes shooting.

“The police department sent us a one-page letter that essentially said, ‘Screw you’,” said D’Angelo.

Although city council decided to purchase the military vehicle instead of cameras, those opposed to the vote are not giving up.

Restorative Justice Coalition’s “call to action” flyer (Courtesy of the Restorative Justic Coalition Facebook page). 

The militarization of police is an ongoing matter of contention across the country.  Earlier this year, the Trump administration renewed program 1033, which allows surplus military gear to be purchased by police departments.  Police forces across the country – including those at over 100 universities – have purchased military weaponry or vehicles.

 

Help from local hurricane relief group extends to Puerto Rico

TAMPA— Members of the community have united to form Decentralized Response, a grassroots response coalition, in the wake of the environmental and economic devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Decentralized Response previously operated under the title Irma Decentralized Response. The name was changed when the group’s relief effort extended beyond hurricane Irma.

Volunteers have supplies sent to a three-bedroom house in Tampa that they call the hub.  They store goods there and distribute them statewide.  The group is even planning a relief trip to Puerto Rico.

Pictured left is one of the rooms in the response hub. The whole house holds a variety of relief supplies that volunteers distribute in the hurricane relief packs. Photo credit: Decentralized Response Facebook Page

Dezeray Lyn, a woman who assisted in the formation of the response group, discussed the group’s main mission, where they’ve been and where they’re going.

“We are here to feed and supply anyone in the community who needs it,” Lyn said. “We also traveled to Apopka, Immokalee and the Keys to give the community there assistance.”

Lyn is also a co-founder of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief.  According to the Facebook page, MADR is a grassroots network with a mission to provide disaster relief based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid and autonomous direct action.

Members of MADR and other activists began mobilizing, as the threat of Irma loomed, to help those in need before, during and after the storm. They formed distribution teams to take hurricane packs containing food, water and hygiene products to refugee families days before Irma hit. The group was a saving grace for those trapped in the rain and high winds.

“We received a call to our relief line from someone trapped in the storm,” Lyn said.  “They were stuck on the side of the interstate, and the police said the winds were too high to send anyone to help them, so we sent our people to pick them up.”

Mostly, the poorer communities were without water and power for extended amounts of time after Irma passed. Decentralized Response provided those neighborhoods in need with water, food and even generators, in some cases.

Dezeray Lyn is featured to the left helping with the delivery of goods to citizens in the Florida Keys. Photo credit: Justin Garcia

Lyn and activists also traveled to Apopka and Immokalee to provide relief. Apopka residents found themselves without power for many days in their small, farming community. It was loosely estimated that 70 percent of the citrus crop was lost during the storm.

Immokalee was hit harder by Irma than many other parts of Florida. More help was needed, so the Coalition of Immokalee Workers worked hard to receive and distribute goods. The town of migrant farmers didn’t have power for weeks and lost a major portion of their crops. Some even lost their homes.

Relief efforts continue.  However, the aid priority of Puerto Rico and other islands has made itself apparent.  The Decentralized Response crew is gearing up to make a trip to the devastated island.

“We are leaving on a weeklong trip to Puerto Rico on October 12,” Lyn said.

Their goal is to help people in need after hurricane Maria. They will distribute relief goods that are being collected in a shipping container before the trip. It should be there when they arrive.

This is a donation flier from Decentralized Response that lists the products needed to be collected and distributed to the victims of the hurricanes. Photo credit: Decentralized Response Facebook Page

Members of Decentralized Response feel that state efforts are not enough considering the destruction in Puerto Rico.

“We must demand that they do more, but also help as a community however we can,” Lyn said.