Author Archives: Jennifer I. Smith-Camejo

About Jennifer I. Smith-Camejo

I am a writer with a passion for politics and organized labor.

May 22: Re-ratification Vote

Please be aware that we will be holding a re-ratification vote on May 22 for the last 3 contract votes we have had, due to a PERC (Public Employee Relations Committee) ruling that online elections are invalid. (No evidence was presented and no conclusion was drawn that there was any impropriety in the election, simply that the method of voting was invalid.) This was due to the lawsuits brought by Shawn Beightol, funded by the Right to Work Commission, a union-busting organization that sponsors and files (often frivolous) lawsuits in the interest of dividing unions and consuming their resources.

The new ratification vote will take place on paper ballots for one day only (May 22), so please be prepared to come to our mandatory meeting that day and cast your ballot. I will be posting the exact time and location by the sign-in sheets tomorrow.

Please be aware that failure to re-ratify our contracts will have the following consequences:

1. All teachers who received any money from the Race to the Top grant will have to return that money from future paychecks. (That includes every teacher at our school.) If that agreement is not re-ratified, the grant money must be returned…and that means from you.

2. We stand to lose employer-covered health insurance. Our bargaining team worked very hard to ensure that we could continue having an employer-covered health insurance option for employees, and the district picked up 90% of the cost of the increase in dependent health care when initially they wanted to pass along 100% of the increase to employees. If our contract is not re-ratified, we could lose the employer-covered option, and the already increased premiums for dependents could increase again dramatically.

3. New teachers would lose the protection afforded them by our Race to the Top M.O.U., which was not guaranteed in any way by SB 736 (and actually goes contrary to SB 736). Under our agreement, any annual contract teacher with an evaluation of “effective” or “highly effective” must be rehired for the next school year. If we do not re-ratify the Race to the Top contract, annual teachers will lose that protection and will be able to be non-renewed any year for any reason or no reason, regardless of the results of their evaluation.

This has the potential to affect quite a few of our colleagues here at HHS…it impacts any teacher who was a 3100 before this year and any new teachers (hired after July 1, 2011).

I will be sending you more information prior to the ratification date, and UTD will be sending you more information as to what a “yes” or “no” vote means as well. Please read all the information sent to you carefully, and be sure that you are informed by credible sources, before making your decision. It stands to impact all of us in significant ways, and you should know what the consequences are before you cast a ballot.



FCAT Madness 2.0

Testing season is upon us…and while the FCAT is (almost) over, there remain the EOCs, the AP exams, etc., etc…If you are like me, you will be missing students for weeks to come; they will come back to class having no idea what we’re doing, looking for makeup work, etc.

Welcome to the land of Tests 2.0…

I hope you are all surviving. See you on the other side.

In the meantime, take a moment to check out my work on this issue in the public sphere…

My latest article on FCAT madness…

My NPR interview on FCAT madness…

My School Board blog, dealing with several topics including union organizing of a new district charter school, and the new “accountability” formula and how it will affect school grades next year…

Happy trails!!

Why I am a union steward.

Today, I overheard a colleague, who is not a member of our union, and who often brags about voting for the very individuals responsible for the horrendous legislation whose consequences we are now dealing with, complaining that he has not had a raise in three years. He then told me that what we needed were Teamsters–if we had Teamsters as our union, then we’d get somewhere.

I have also received e-mails from a teacher in our district, a former union member, gloating over the PERC victory in his lawsuit against UTD over the contract ratification vote, which cost US–you and me–many thousands of dollars, while his case was bankrolled by the union-busting Right to Work Foundation in D.C. His so-called “victory” found no evidence or even indication of fraud, and flatly rejected his claim that employees were not given enough notice of the vote–it only found that the online voting, despite numerous security measures, was invalid. PERC has not yet indicated what method of voting will be acceptable. The instigator insinuates–preposterously–that without UTD, teachers would finally be able to get their missing steps.

What is wrong with this picture?

Public school teachers are actively working against the interests of not only other public school teachers, but against their own interests. Every time a teacher votes for someone who goes to Tallahassee and helps pass (or even sponsors) laws that damage public schools and the teaching profession, he is helping those working against us. Every time a teacher takes legal action that costs union members and creates a stir that turns them against one another, he is helping those working against us.

Ironically enough, after they have perpetrated the damage, they seem shocked that we as public school teachers are not better situated.

As a union in a right-to-work state where Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state legislature two to one, and also hold the governor’s seat, we are constantly on the defensive. That is not going to change anytime soon, unless we have a dramatically different outcome in our 2012 elections from what we have seen up to now.

Always being on the defensive can make it very tough to demonstrate triumphs and achievements, and very easy for those attacking us to make us look weak and ineffective.

How many times have I heard fellow teachers say, “If our union were stronger and had more power, I would join.” They then point to powerful teachers’ unions like the ones in New York and Chicago as evidence that ours simply does not have enough clout to make it worth joining.

What’s wrong with this picture?

New York and Illinois are NOT right-to-work states. All public school teachers MUST be union members, or else pay a mandatory agency fee to the union for having had their salaries bargained for them. Thanks to the broad membership and the hefty war chest, those unions have far greater clout when they go to the bargaining table with their districts and in elections.

Here in Florida, you get the same salary and benefits whether you are a union member or not, though it was the union that bargained them for you. Thanks to this, far too many people think they not only need not join the union negotiating their salaries for them, but that they are well-situated to criticize their bargaining agent for being too weak…when it is exactly THEIR failure to join their union that MAKES it weak.

What I answered the gentleman who told me that we needed Teamsters in our school was this: “What we need is 100% membership. When we have 100% membership, we will be strong. And when we’re strong like that, we’ll start getting more of what we want and deserve.”

That is the truth, as plain and simple as you can get. There is great strength in numbers. And in Florida, as in all other right-to-work states, numbers are our weakness.

Our victories have been defensive, precarious ones. Succeeding in getting Charlie Crist to veto SB 6, only to see it come back reincarnated (and signed by Rick Scott) as SB 736. Defeating several bad charter bills this year. Winning the first round in the legal battle over the pension “reform” enacted last year, and hoping to win in the Florida Supreme Court. Maintaining 100% employer-covered health care for employee only. Averting layoffs. Defensive victories, all, which makes it easy for a critic to complain he hasn’t had a raise in three years, or that we don’t have any offensive bills in the legislature to protect us going forward, etc.

It can be hard to quantify the value of a disaster averted. We have held our ground against an avalanche. It has not been easy. It is far easier to sit back and criticize than to actually throw yourself into the front lines and fight a battle where you are outnumbered two to one–sometimes by your own friends and colleagues.

When our legislators pass bills that cripple us and budgets that maim us, whence comes this righteous indignation that the union should have, somehow, magically been able to avoid the disastrous new evaluation system or get raises for employees that would not have resulted in layoffs? When the cost of insuring the district jumped by $65 million this year, in the aftermath of draconian budget cuts, whence comes the righteous indignation that the union should have been able to preserve the same benefits at the same costs, without cutting jobs or salaries? Instead of blaming the people responsible for the mess we find ourselves in, so many of us turn against the only people who are actually fighting for us. Call me idealistic, but I still find it unconscionable.

Is our union perfect? Of course not. Will it ever be perfect? No, because everyone has his own idea of what perfect looks like anyway, and it appears we will be on the defensive in this state for many years to come. But our union is the only organization we have working for our interests right now.

And it is the only one we need.

Personally, I have been a union member since my New Teacher Orientation. I have long believed strongly in the power of organized labor to better working conditions and living conditions for every worker. I believe in strength in numbers. I did not need to know every detail of our union and all about who its leaders were for me to sign the card. All of that was secondary to my commitment to organized labor and, in fact, my debt to organized labor. The sacrifice–the dues that come from each paycheck–is a very small price to pay indeed for the benefits I reap every day from the hard work, sweat, blood, and tears of unions past and present: weekends; abolition of child labor; sick leave; paid holidays; maternity leave; a contract; due process protection; duty-free lunch; limit to hours in workday; paid planning time (or compensation for extra periods); no premium for my health insurance; the invaluable freedom to speak up when I see injustice being done to our staff and/or our students without fear of retaliation, without fear of losing my job. So many people in so many careers–including teachers in non-union schools–simply do not have all of those rights and privileges–particularly the last.

Yet so many of us take them for granted. We think they could never be taken away. Then we are shocked when, year after year, our legislators chip away, or attempt to chip away, at those rights. We may take them for granted now, but each and every one of them was fought for, and each and every one can be taken away when we have no unions fighting for us. Ask teachers working in Georgia or North Carolina.

The decision to be a union member was an easy one for me. But I did not become active in the union at first–not because I wasn’t interested in participating in the union, but because I was overwhelmed with my new career and wasn’t even sure where to start.

I just want to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to you all once again for electing me steward. Though it can be a thankless and frustrating job–and has caused me to see sides of our administration I had never seen before–it is also incredibly empowering. Between serving as building steward and actively participating in several other committees and task forces of UTD, I feel I am doing more than just complaining: I am trying to do what’s right, and trying to change the things I disagree with, both within the union and outside the union. Every other union activist I know is the same. We often disagree with each other, with other members, with other stewards, with leadership–but we all see the big picture, which is that we are all we have, and it is up to us to do our part to make teaching in Florida a sustainable, rewarding career.

We are going through a dark period right now–but that is all the more reason our commitment to our union should not waver. It is very hard to calculate how much we have not lost thanks to our union.

I hope none of us will have to see firsthand how much there still remains to lose. Could it be better? Sure–ask someone in an all-union state, where they have better pay and better protections (and often, better government). Could it be worse? Sure–ask someone who works in a state where there are almost no teachers’ unions at all…or someone locally who works in a charter school.

Let’s stop fighting each other, because we’re only fighting ourselves and giving our enemy the upper hand. Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let’s link arms and see what we can accomplish when everyone is on board.

We are all we have…and we are all we need. Let’s make it work.

Please check out updated pages!

I have updated the following pages with timely, relevant information:

– Eye on Legislation

– Contract Talk

– UTD Working for U

Please take a moment to check them out!

Also, please respond to the poll below (on staff morale) if you haven’t done so already.

Thanks for everything you do!

Take this poll about job satisfaction.

Please take a second to answer this poll…trying to get a snapshot to gauge teacher morale at our school this year…please feel free to share with fellow FACULTY AND STAFF, and/or faculty and staff at other public schools in Dade County. Thanks!

Setting us up to fail.

You may have heard the controversy surrounding proposed changes to the school accountability formula used to assign Florida schools letter grades; you have received e-mails about it and it has been featured on more than one occasion, including this past Sunday, in the Miami Herald.

Besides raising cut scores needed to score “proficient,” the new system also assigns an automatic F to any school where fewer than 25% of students score a level 3 on the FCAT reading and count special education and English language learners in the equation just like all other students. Based on this past year’s results, the number of schools in Miami-Dade earning an F would jump from 5 to an estimated 50. The new formula would also consider students going into adult education and/or earning a special diploma “dropouts” for the purpose of graduation rate.

Schools like Hialeah High serving large ELL and SPED populations would be hit hard, while those schools with the fewest students with special needs and/or language barriers–namely charter schools and many magnet schools–would likely feel little impact from the changes.

The changes also include an automatic trigger, whereby if 75% of schools score an A, the cut scores will automatically be raised so that, in effect, most schools drop a letter grade.

The justification for the proposed changes, slated for a vote tomorrow (Tuesday)?

As always, supporters talk about “raising the bar,” making sure that a passing letter grade means the students are prepared for college and/or the workforce, ensuring that schools and teachers  are held accountable for all students, including ELL and SPED children.

But what is it really all about?

Most people would agree that if your focus is improvement, you would want to periodically raise the bar. However, there are several worrisome factors at play that contradict proponents’ claims that this is all about making sure children get the best possible education.

1. The new test (the “FCAT 2.0”) was just released this past year. It is supposed to be a harder test. It does not make sense to simultaneously raise the level of difficulty of a test AND the score needed to pass it, especially when the new test requires the material be covered in a different way and at a different pace from previous years. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

2. The “automatic F” for schools with under 25% level 3 on FCAT reading does not take into account improvement. Therefore, if a majority of students make gains, even if they advance several grade levels or go from a level 1 to a level 2–which can be quite difficult to achieve with some of these children who have become very demoralized and weary of nonstop testing and failing–the school will still be labeled a failure…implying that the gains are meaningless. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

3. SPED can mean many different things. It can be as little as a child with ADD who produces beautiful work (and test scores), and whom the teacher may be unaware is even considered “SPED” until she gets a note from the SPED office, or it can be a severely autistic child, or it can be a seriously developmentally delayed child who will never be able to perform “on grade level.” Many of our ELL students have been in the country for less than two years and barely know any English at all. By including these latter categories (as well as all of the other many categories of special needs) in the school letter grade, the school is offering incentives for schools to avoid serving these fragile populations. It is also telling these children (and their parents and teachers) that no matter how much progress they make, if they are not able to pass these grade-level exams like their non-handicapped peers, they are failures. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

4. The “automatic trigger” raising cut scores whenever a certain number of schools attain an A is nothing short of pernicious. Any teacher or student can tell you the unfairness of this. If I gave my class a test, and over 75% of them made an A on it, so I decided that those who scored between a 90 and 95 would be dropped to a B, and only those scoring above a 95 would keep their A, how many protests would I hear? How many phone calls from upset parents would I receive? Of course, as a fair teacher, I would never do such a thing. If ONLY 75% of my students got an A on a test! I would be rejoicing. If the state believes that its accountability system is a good one and its goals are worthy and attainable ones, they should rejoice when 75% of their schools meet their goals. Instead, they choose to beat the schools back down. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

5. Including students who finish high school in adult education and special education students receiving special diplomas as “dropouts” in the tabulation of graduation rates does two things. First, it pushes schools to encourage exiting students to transfer to charter schools rather than adult education, as that is often the only way to prevent these children from figuring as dropouts and damaging the scool’s grade. Second, it implies that special education students who have worked hard throughout their time in school and performed to the very best of their ability are “dropouts,” or failures, nonetheless, because they were never able to achieve the same level as their non-handicapped peers. It also implies that teachers and/or schools serving these populations are somehow failing in their mission. This is setting children and schools up to fail.

And what happens when these schools that have been set up to fail end up “failing,” as they almost certainly will if the changes are adopted tomorrow?

Children and teachers statewide are told that their progress does not count, and that they will never be good enough. For a state where morale among both teachers and educators is at an all-time low, this is not good news. Discouragement is not a good motivator. Being told by the state that no matter how hard you work and how much ground you cover, you will never be good enough, is not what instills a love of learning in students, or a love of teaching in teachers. Already demoralized children will be eager to find something, anything, to do besides go to school. Already demoralized teachers will be eager to find somewhere, anywhere, to work besides in a school.

Wearing the scarlet letter “F” does more to a school than just deny its teachers the School Recognition Fund money. It labels that school, its teachers, its administrators, its staff, AND its children failing. And further, and perhaps most damagingly at all, it labels the neighborhood it is in failing. Florida is still in the brunt of the Great Recession. Economic recovery has been very slow in poor and working-class neighborhoods. Good schools are key in attracting businesses to cities and neighborhoods. No business wants to set up down the street from an F school, because no employees will want to send their children to that school. This will kick certain neighborhoods while they’re already down, and will benefit no one…except the charter schools.

And that’s what it all boils down to in the end…once again, as always, MONEY.

Why, oh why, do they want to set public schools up to fail? What could be their possible motivation?


More F and D schools means more of the best students with the most concerned parents at those scho0ls fleeing to the “safety” of charter schools, many of them boosted relative to their public scho0l counterparts by their failure to serve ELL and SPED students.

Perhaps even more significantly, it paves the way for public schools in struggling neighborhoods to be taken over by for-profit charter management companies.

How so?

If you can make sure that their grade stays at failing, you are only a year or so away from the state taking over that school, shutting it down, and handing it over to a charter management company. This is very enticing to many of those management companies, who see a gold mine in schools like Edison and Central, where a small fortune has been poured into updating and renovating the schools in recent years. When charter management companies get to take over existing schools and all their assets, it’s less overhead for them and a far greater profit margin.

Will the students be better served? Based on the evidence so far, not at all. If the scores improve, it is very likely due to a refusal–typical of charter schools–to serve the neediest students, whether by not providing ELL or SPED services at all, or by expelling students likely to bring down test scores.

When you see changes like these coming, follow the money. When you see bills like the “Parent Trigger” bill and the bill that would force districts to share their maintenance and capital outlay money with charter schools, follow the money. Many of these companies–such as Academica, the owner of Mater among others and owned by state Rep. Erik Fresen’s brother-in-law–have gotten very rich off your tax money, and are reinvesting some of those profits in lobbying their cronies in Tallahassee to make sure the money keeps flowing.

All of the proposed changes work to their advantage.

None work to the advantage of children.

They are setting us up to fail. We know why. It is time to raise our voices loud and clear, and tell them that THEY are the failures. They are failing the hardworking teachers who have poured their souls into helping their students. They are failing the hardworking parents who pay their taxes and want their children to get the best education possible.

And most of all, they are failing the children of the state of Florida, who deserve a world-class education, and instead are being bought and sold as commodities in the interest of corporate profits.

One voice, one vote.

Breaking news: the contract negotiated by our bargaining team, made up of rank and file members, teachers like you and me, was ratified by 63.2% (4,713 votes) to 36.8% (2,739 votes). The results have been certified by VoteNet.

To me, the breaking news is not that the contract was ratified, and it would perhaps not have been breaking news if it had NOT been ratified. What is breaking news to me–though by now it shouldn’t be–is that a total of only 7,452 individuals voted. That may sound like a lot, unless you consider that there are roughly 30,000 employees in our bargain unit, every one of them eligible to vote, and every one of them notified through several e-mails of when and how to vote. The numbers mean that only about a QUARTER of those eligible to vote actually voted.

I guess this should come as no surprise. Yet I cannot help but be disappointed. Whether people are for or against the negotiated contract, they should have expressed that view through a vote. Even though I do not believe that non-members should have had the right to vote–if they care about the contract they get, why aren’t they members of the union bargaining for that contract?–it would still have made sense for them to vote. But even if you cut out all the non-members, we should still have had roughly 15,000 total votes. Yet we had only a little more than half of that…and I am fairly certain that not every single vote cast in this ratification process came from a union member.

Still, there will be plenty of people who did not vote complaining about the result. Does this sound familiar?

We will see the same thing happen in November. There are a lot of teachers, support staff, and other school employees in this state. We make up a powerful voting bloc. Or we should, anyway. Yet an awful lot of us don’t actually vote in elections. I know teachers who don’t vote. The most frequent excuse is, “What does it matter anyway? They’re all the same.” The problem with that is that they are NOT all the same. While I can certainly sympathize with disillusionment at what so many of our elected officials do with the powers they are given, and while it is true that many promises end up broken, to say that they are all the same is a fallacy, and a dangerous one. There are friends who, while they may not have the numbers or the power to give us everything we want, are not hellbent on destroying us, either.

Even more disturbing than those who do not vote at all are those teachers who will go out and vote for the very same people who have put us in the economic predicament that prevents us from getting our steps, from getting a raise, or even feeling secure in our jobs when we are working our hardest every day. There are many teachers who will go to the polls and vote for individuals because of the letter after their name, because that is what they have been doing as long as they’ve been able to vote–as often as not because that’s how their parents voted–and then they will kick and scream when the school budget gets cut again, when more kids get stuffed in their classroom, when badly needed repairs don’t happen, when they do not have enough textbooks for their students, when there is no hope of them getting a step or a raise. They will kick and scream that the new evaluation system is unfair, even though they voted for the people responsible for creating that evaluation system…and they will, at this point, probably have voted for them AGAIN after they already created the system. Most infuriating for me (and many of us), they will kick and scream that the union is not working hard enough, or has “sold out,” or whatever other conspiracy theories may be popular at the moment, and that that is the reason we aren’t getting a raise, that is the reason why we’re under this new evaluation system, that is the reason why there are too many kids in their class, etc. As if their union (which they may or may not even be part of) were somehow responsible for the laws and budgets passed by their state legislators.

These bad laws, these bad budgets, they come from somewhere. THEY COME FROM PEOPLE. They are not inevitable, whatever those responsible for them would like for you to believe. They do not appear out of thin air from one day to the next. They are carefully planned and written out by very powerful, heavily vested corporate interests. All those new tests? You can bet the testing companies wrote the laws requiring them. The legislated influx of money to charter schools? The charter school management companies’ lobbyists wrote those laws and budgets, too.

You had a choice this Monday. You could vote to ratify our contract, or you could vote to send our bargaining team back to the table. Some of you exercised this choice and used your voice. Many of you did not.

You have 3 choices in November.

#1. You can vote for people who will hold public education harmless, who will use their voice and their vote to staunch the flow of public education dollars to for-profit corporations, who will try to right some of the wrongs perpetrated by past legislators and governors.

#2. You can vote for the people who got us in this predicament and will continue to take the dollars out of your paycheck, will continue to make sure that private, for-profit charters get money for construction and repairs before our school, will make sure that you will be evaluated on things beyond your control because setting public schools up to fail frees up money for corporate interests.

#3. You can choose not to vote at all, leaving your decision to others to make. The band Rush says it well…”If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” By not exercising your voice, by not casting your vote, you are saying you do not care. You do not care who gets elected, what they do when they get to Tallahassee…you do not care if you get a raise or not, you do not care if you have any job security or not, you do not care how you are evaluated, you do not care if the building you work in crumbles around your feet, you do not care if you have 25 students per class or 100, you do not care if you are respected or not.

Know who your legislators are. Know how they have voted on the issues that matter to you. All of this information is available at and If you do not already have this information, it’s high time you took a moment to find out. And then tell a friend. Or two. Or three. Tell the teacher next door. Tell your aging mother who has always voted the same way, no matter what, for reasons even she cannot clearly articulate. Know why you are voting the way you are, and then explain it to those around you, and encourage them to vote for the things they believe in, for the things that will help themselves and their students.

What has happened to public education in this state is sad indeed. But at the end of the day, who is responsible?

The answer? Every single one of us who should have voted for a friend, and instead voted for an enemy, or did not vote at all.