At Pike schools, ongoing tensions with labor groups disrupt a return to in-person learning

Dual labor disputes over salaries and contracts  in Pike Township Schools may cause more cancelations of in-person classes.

A group of people in coats and some with umbrellas stand with placards. One reads “Pike’s ‘A’ teachers deserve ‘A’ compensation” and “2019 Red for Ed, 2020 Heroes, 2021 Equity in Pay???”
Pike employees protest in the rain on Oct. 28, calling for higher wages that better match their experience. (Aleksandra Appleton/Chalkbeat)

Dual labor disputes have disrupted hopes for a smooth comeback at Pike Township schools this year — and officials have warned families that more cancelations of in-person classes could be possible. 

School doors have closed three times in two months because of drivers calling off work in protest of low wages, while teachers have demonstrated en masse outside two school board meetings in a row.  

As negotiations with teachers stalled, social media reports from students and parents this week suggested that teachers too had joined the sick-out movement — which their union said it does not condone. 

The two employee groups have protested together for across-the-board raises for what they say would bring Pike in line with other Marion County districts. The non-union drivers and bus monitors want to be paid more than what fast food workers earn. Teachers are asking the district to commit $3.8 million for across-the-board raises that include higher increases for experienced teachers.

But Pike administrators say the district can’t afford to meet the demands of both groups after years of enrollment decline, according to an email from Superintendent Flora Reichanadter to all staff. Leaders also resist tapping the district’s $36 million in federal coronavirus aid funding or floating a local referendum to support raises. Federal aid, known as ESSER funds, are one-time monies. Relying on passage of a future tax measure is uncertain and risky, they say.

“It would be against my normal nature to recommend that we fund salaries through any time-limited funding source,” district Chief Financial Officer Krista Kelly told the board last week.

Amid a national labor shortage, the district is competing with other employers offering signing bonuses, perks, and higher hourly pay. Employees say that’s one more reason the district must raise wages.  

“You can’t get a (bus) monitor for $11 an hour, when they can go to McDonald’s and make $15,” driver Lawrence Turner said.  

“I can no longer buy a gallon of gas for $1.98 — it’s $4 a gallon now. So how do you expect a person to live?”

Paying experienced teachers

The labor troubles emerged publicly Sept. 27, when the Indianapolis district announced in the early morning that it would switch to remote instruction for the day due to a lack of drivers. 

The 11,000-student district cancelled in-person learning again on Sept. 30 and once again on Oct. 15, when 18 drivers were absent, according to the district. 

This week, Pike High School families reported that dozens of teachers had called in sick as contract negotiations stalled, leaving some students in large improvised classes in the cafeteria. 

The district did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. 

Northeast of Indianapolis, Anderson schools also closed Wednesday due to an undue number of teacher absences, the Associated Press reported.

Representatives of the Pike Classroom Teachers Association said they did not condone the sick-out. Union Treasurer Mike Bankert noted that even routine teacher absences throughout the semester had necessitated grouping students in the cafeteria due to a lack of substitute teachers. 

To meet a deadline set by state law, the district must reach an agreement with its teachers by Friday. But as of Wednesday, the two sides had not reached a tentative pact, and no further negotiations were scheduled, union President Chris Ludy said. If they fail to reach an agreement by Friday, the groups will move to mediation and fact-finding after Nov. 15.

Ludy said teachers and drivers were asking for many of the same things, like rewarding experience with higher pay that better aligns with other Marion County districts.

While Pike does well at attracting new teachers with a base salary of about $44,000, Ludy said teachers don’t see their pay rise much with experience. He said many veteran teachers earn just $1.90 more per hour than new teachers. This prompts them to leave for higher mid-career salaries at other districts, depriving students of experienced teachers, Ludy said.  

Speaking at last week’s school board meeting where about 200 Pike employees protested, Ludy accused the district of mishandling negotiations, including by posting a contract proposal to teachers’ online employee portals while talks were ongoing. The district blamed a vendor for the error.

Ludy also said the district also shared details of its closed-door negotiations with the union in an all-staff email.

That email indicated that the district has just over $2.3 million to raise teacher pay and still have sufficient funds to provide raises for other employees, including drivers.

The proposal would set teachers’ minimum starting salary at $45,000 and attempts to address a “sag” that has left some teachers without a significant pay raise for six years. 

“The MSD of Pike Township will continue to negotiate in good faith while adhering to the district’s taxpayer-funded budget,” a district statement on the negotiations said. 

But the union’s most recent proposal asks for $3.8 million in raises. 

It charged that the district’s offer still would favor new teachers over mid-career ones and would deny about half of all teachers significant raises. Instead, the union wants to raise all teacher salaries to about $1,000 below the average of other teachers in Marion County, while leaving intact the higher-than-average salaries for the newest and most experienced educators.

“While not ideal, PCTA believes this is the most equitable option,” the union said.

Stagnant salaries have forced teachers to defer personal goals, elementary teacher Michelle Strong told the board.  

“Myself and my partner have put off having a wedding, buying a house together and starting our family solely due to the fact that we don’t have the pay to afford the luxuries of such things, the same pay I’ve made since I started in Pike over six years ago,” Strong said. 

Drivers don’t collectively bargain

Drivers also raised concerns at board meetings in September and October. 

Comparatively low wages cause constant turnover and onboarding, bus driver Rufus Coleman told the board, which ultimately costs more money and creates a burden on the employees who remain.

“Drivers have a relationship with kids just like teachers do,” Coleman said. “The driver is the first to see the kids and the last to see the kids.”

Katina Langford, a driver for 28 years who said she earns $21 per hour, said the district had also made changes to drivers’ pay schedules that created an undue burden on many employees. 

“I cried to my husband today, because I have a car payment that is due, a cell phone payment that is due, and my mortgage is $1,150. I don’t have all that to cover that,” Langford said. 

“Something’s not going to get paid, and it’s not right.”

Pike spokesperson Sarah Dorsey said the district had begun the school year with 16 fewer drivers than needed to be fully staffed. It employs 85 drivers.

Through walk-in interviews advertising a $20 per hour starting salary, it has added four new drivers, she said.

As non-union employees, drivers don’t engage in collective bargaining. But Dorsey said they typically receive raises in January. The district has also used emergency funds to provide up to $400 in a perfect-attendance stipend for drivers that runs from October to December.

Dorsey acknowledged that more cancellations of in-person learning are possible. The district said it would consider labeling future campus closures as snow days, which would allow students to make up missed in-person days, rather than engage in emergency remote learning.

Cold and flu season on top of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could lead to additional disruptions this winter, said Ron Chew, president of the Indiana State School Bus Drivers Association. And hiring drivers may become an even tougher task after February, when new federal regulations related to training go into effect, Chew added. 

Chew said he hadn’t been in contact with the Pike drivers and couldn’t justify a sick-out, but believes the situation reflects a national driver shortage and years of low wages for drivers statewide. 

“I think people have come to realize how important school bus drivers are as part of the educational process,” Chew said. “It’s sad that it took the pandemic to realize that.”

Pike parents and community members have largely expressed support for school employees, speaking at board meetings and honking their cars in a show of solidarity at protests. 

“When buses do not operate, the doors to the school are closed,” parent Nate Smith told the board. “When teachers are not motivated to engage in the learning process, the opportunities for our students are limited.”

“When both of those happen, our students are left behind.”

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