student activism

Five Chicago student activists on why they will be in your face this summer

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

Trevon Bosley’s brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. Shot from the street while helping a friend with drums in 2006, he was just one of the 471 people killed by gun violence that year in Chicago.

Through a peer youth council at St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham, Bosley, 20, became an outspoken student activist, and tonight he will join hundreds of students converging for an annual peace march that starts at the church. Chicago’s tradition of youth activism will be on full display, but the local students are getting a high-powered boost. Joining them are Chicago musicians Chance the Rapper and Jennifer Hudson and former Arizona House Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 at a public meeting with constituents. There will also be another set of special guests: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., where a February shooter killed 17 students and teachers.

All week long, local student activists have been rallying and some Parkland students have lended an assist. Several staged a sit-in in City Hall on Monday to protest the proposed construction of a $95 million police academy on the West side and call for an elected school board. Others staged a die-in on in front of Trump Tower on Tuesday to commemorate the second anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Chalkbeat sat down with five Chicago student activists to hear why they take action and what they hope to achieve.


"Gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore 24/7."Alycia Moaton

East Woodlawn resident Alycia Moaton, 17, attends Kenwood Academy. She’s part of Good Kids Mad City, a new advocacy organization formed by Chicago and Baltimore students. This past Monday, Good Kids Mad City members were central figures in the City Hall sit-in this past Monday.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alycia Moaton
Alycia Moaton outside City Hall earlier this week

On becoming an activist: I grew up in Oak Park for about 10 years of my life. Then I moved into Chicago. Going to public schools on the South Side, it was like a completely different world. A lot of the students—their first thought is whether or not they’ll be able to go to school that day because they’re worrying about getting shot on the way there. When I got to experience both sides, experience what it’s like to not fear going to school, I could see just how messed up it is.

Starting off around three years ago, I went to a lot of protests and youth summits, and that turned me into wanting to be part of an organization. That’s how I got in touch with Good Kids Mad City. Good Kids Mad City came to be after the Parkland shooting, from the idea that gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore, 24/7, and it’s as national as a mass shooting.

What she hopes to achieve: One of my main goals is that [the rally tonight] gets a lot of national coverage. The Parkland students are allowing us to make the narrative about Chicago. I hope people leave with the idea of not treating gun violence as just a local issue, with the idea that this isn’t normal. This shouldn’t be viewed as “Oh, this is just how Chicago is, Chicago is just a violent city.”

The big goal is to have people change their narrative about what gun violence in Chicago is, that it has to be taken way more seriously than just a local issue.


"When people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders."Diego Garcia

Brighton Park resident Diego Garcia, 16, led 50 local teenagers to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. in March. Earlier this week, he participated in the die-in outside Trump Tower. He is also a member of Chicago Strong, the citywide youth group organizing tonight’s rally.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

On becoming an activist: The parents in my community are immigrants, and so are my teachers and my friends. After Trump became president, they felt like, if they speak up for what they believe in, they’re putting themselves in danger of being targeted by the government.

I decided that if I really had nothing to lose, then I would be the voice for them. I’m a citizen of the U.S., and just being a citizen, I have many rights that a lot of other people feel like they don’t have—the right to voice my opinion, to vote about my future.

After the Parkland shooting, my priest said that he would support me in taking 15 teenagers to Washington, D.C., for March for Our Lives. It was one of the best times that I’ve had in my life, because not only were my peers standing up for what they believe in, but also I knew that I wasn’t alone. There was, visually, all around you, people who cared about you.

What he hopes to achieve: I hope that, after the rally, people realize that we young people in Chicago, we want something to change. A lot of the adults like normalizing the violence. The 14-year-old that got shot, or the adult that was going to the store and got shot for no good reason—no one talks about these small things because it happens so often.

I hope that people’s perspective of Chicago changes, because when people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders.


"It takes everybody. We need people from every region to contribute so we can get total change."Alex King

Austin resident Alex King, 17, just graduated from North Lawndale College Prep. At North Lawndale, he was a Peace Warrior, a youth ambassador for violence prevention. After the Parkland shooting, he traveled to Parkland to visit student survivors. Alex is also part of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alex King
Alex King on a radio interview

On becoming an activist: It started with me wanting a shirt. At North Lawndale College Prep, we have to wear these button-up shirts with collars, and it’s hot. One Thursday, I was seeing these different shirts, regular long-sleeve shirts. It had “Peace Warriors” going down the sleeve, a peace sign on the back, and I was like, “I want one of those.” Then I also heard that Peace Warriors get pulled out of class sometimes, and I’m like “Yeah, if we can get out of class, for sure!”

After joining Peace Warriors, it got to a point where I felt that family connection—these were some of the people I went to when I couldn’t even go to my own family. I’ve been shot at multiple times and I didn’t go to my family, because I didn’t want to put that burden on their shoulders. I went to the Peace Warriors because I knew some of them experienced the same thing, and it’s also easier to connect with people in your age range.

My nephew was shot and killed on May 28, 2017. Shot twice: once in the back of the head and once in the back. I feel like I would have done something that would have put me in a way worse spot than I’m in now if I didn’t have Peace Warriors. They came to me every day, and were like “We are here for you no matter what.” I was known as the one with all the energy. When those people saw me down, they told me,”‘You were always the one to cheer everybody up, so we have to be here for you, to get you back like that.”

What he hopes to achieve: I want people to walk away [tonight] and believe that change can happen. We might be different in a lot of ways, but we are alike in more ways than we are different. I want people to see the fact that we can’t be independent, if we want to make change across the world, we all have to come together to make this work.

We can’t try change the world with only Chicago, we can’t try to change the world with only Florida. It takes everybody. We need people from every region to put their input on so we can get total change.


"Be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something."Trevon Bosley

Roseland native Trevon Bosley is a rising junior at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He joined Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere, or B.R.A.V.E., a peer youth council run through the St. Sabina youth program, in 2010. He is also a member of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Trevon Bosley
Trevon Bosley at March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. earlier this year

On becoming an activist: On April 4, 2006, my brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. He was outside helping a friend with drums. Someone fired shots at them and he was shot in the shoulder. After that, my parents got in contact with (the Rev.) Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina, and he introduced me to B.R.A.V.E.

The main things that the older B.R.A.V.E. members told me was to be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something. They told me to just be effective when you’re planning and strategizing your movement.

A while back [around three years ago], we did a voter registration campaign. The strategic thing was how we planned to tackle violence. We know that we have a lot of gun violence in Chicago, but we have to understand why. We noticed that the elected officials at the time weren’t allocating resources to anti-violence initiatives, and the only way you can get politicians to listen to you is to vote. We identified what the problem was and how to go about addressing it.

What he hopes to achieve: We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been fighting for change in the community for a very long time. Tonight’s rally is going to be bigger because of the Parkland influence. We’ve been fighting in Chicago for a very long time for peace, but only recently has the national media really wanted to cover our everyday shootings. The Parkland influence is giving us the platform, it’s led to our voices finally being heard about everyday shootings.


"I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories because they always twist it around, and then you’re like: That’s not me."RieOnna Holmon

RieOnna Holmon, 15, attends Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Rosewood, and she lives in Woodlawn. She joined B.R.A.V.E in 2017, where she received mentorship from older members such as Trevon. Most recently, RieOnna became the president of B.R.A.V.E.

PHOTO: Courtesy of RieOnna Holman
RieOnna Holman speaking at St. Sabina in March

On becoming an activist: I joined B.R.A.V.E. last summer when I did an internship at the ARK of St. Sabina. I just started going to the meetings and taking part in all of the rallies. I see myself in these children [that I mentor], how I was naïve and didn’t really know anything. Being able to teach them about what is really happening out there really shows me that the youth need to be educated about what’s going on.

What she hopes to achieve: [Tonight,] I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories for them because they always twist it around and you’re always like, “That’s not me.”

It happens a lot. People will talk about someone they lost, and [media outlets] will turn it around being like, this “x” gang member. But we didn’t tell you that. I know now that I have to actually get out there and tell it for myself, because otherwise what’s out there could not be true or another side of the story.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect that Diego Garcia led 50 teenagers to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. in March, not 15 teenagers.

yes vote

Denver teachers vote to strike in push for higher pay

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association announce the results of their strike vote Tuesday.

Denver teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike for the first time in 25 years. Amid a national wave of teacher activism, they’re seeking higher pay and also a fundamental change in how the district compensates educators.

Because of state rules, Monday is the earliest a Denver strike could start.

Ninety-three percent of the teachers and other instructional staff members who voted in a union election Saturday and Tuesday were in favor of a strike, according to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. That surpassed the two-thirds majority needed for a strike to happen.

“They’re striking for better pay, they’re striking for our profession, and they’re striking for Denver students,” said teacher Rob Gould, a member of the union’s negotiation team who announced the strike vote results Tuesday night.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova called the strike vote “not entirely unexpected.”

“From the correspondence that I’ve had with teachers by email and folks that I’ve talked with, it’s really clear there is a lot of frustration on the part of our teachers,” Cordova said.

She has pledged to keep schools open if teachers walk out. In an automated message to parents Tuesday evening, she made it clear that classes will take place as normal Wednesday and “into the foreseeable future.” The district is actively recruiting substitute teachers to fill in during a strike. It is offering to pay them $200 a day, which is double the normal rate.

The strike potentially affects 71,000 students in district-run schools. Another 21,000 students attend charter schools, where teachers are not union members.

Cordova said district officials plan to meet with Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday and share a letter asking for state intervention, which could delay a strike. Denver Classroom Teachers Association officials also plan to meet with Polis Wednesday, according to union Deputy Executive Director Corey Kern.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment cannot impose an agreement between the district and the union, but it can provide mediation or hold hearings to try to bring about a resolution. In 1994, the last time Denver teachers went on strike, Gov. Roy Romer helped negotiate a settlement — after the court refused to order teachers back to work.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to continue to work on finding the common ground,” Cordova said.

The strike vote in Denver comes after a weeklong strike by teachers in Los Angeles. It also follows a wave of activism and agitation for higher teacher pay that began sweeping the country last year. Here in Colorado, teachers from all over the state staged several rallies at the state Capitol last spring, demanding that lawmakers boost funding for the state’s schools.

The issue at hand in Denver is more localized. The teachers union and the school district had been negotiating for more than a year over how to revamp the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, called ProComp.

Late Friday night, an hour and a half before the most recent agreement was set to expire, the union rejected the district’s latest offer. Although the district offered to invest an additional $20 million into teacher pay and revamp ProComp to look more like a traditional salary schedule — which is what the union wanted — union negotiators said the district’s offer didn’t go far enough.

That rejection ended negotiations and set the stage for a strike. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver’s 5,700 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other instructional staff.

Union officials did not release the number of teachers who voted on the strike or how many members it currently has. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have any purview. Kern said the vote was conducted electronically by a third party.

Cordova is in her third week on the job as superintendent. She has reminded the public repeatedly that she started her career as a Denver teacher and counts several teachers among her best friends. But her pledge to be more responsive than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, has been tested in the bargaining process and now will be tested even further.

Denver teachers have long been frustrated by ProComp. In its most recent iteration, ProComp paid teachers a base salary and then allowed them to earn additional bonuses and incentives for things such as working in a high-poverty school or hard-to-fill position.

Denver voters passed a special tax increase in 2005 to fund the ProComp incentives. The tax is expected to generate $33 million this year.

But many teachers found ProComp confusing. Relying on bonuses and incentives caused their pay to fluctuate in ways that made financial planning difficult, they said.

Chris Landis, a fifth grade teacher at Colfax Elementary, said his salary has varied by as much as $5,000 from one year to the next in the four years he’s been teaching in Denver. He sees the union proposal as creating more stability over the long run, which makes the strike a risk worth taking.

“As someone who wants to be a teacher for the rest of my life, the union proposal has a lot going for it,” he said. “Education is worth fighting for. I’m willing to take a personal hit to guarantee the future for our kids.”

The union wants smaller bonuses and more money for base pay. The union also wants the district to spend roughly $28 million more than it currently does on teacher compensation.

The district’s proposal would have increased base salaries, too, but not by as much. And it would have kept the bonuses and incentives more robust. For example, the district’s offer includes a $2,500 incentive for teachers who teach at schools serving a high proportion of students from low-income families, while the union proposal calls for a $1,500 incentive.

District officials said that incentive is key to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers at high-poverty schools, where teacher turnover can be high, and Cordova does not want to compromise on that.

In the end, the union and the district proposals were separated by about $8 million. District officials said they couldn’t come up with any more money, and would already have to make deep cuts to invest the additional $20 million they proposed.

Teachers called their bluff, pointing to what they called a top-heavy administration and noting that $8 million is less than 1 percent of Denver Public Schools’ annual $1 billion budget.

The strike will put pressure on teachers, too, though. The union has a very modest strike fund. A Go Fund Me started on Jan. 16 had raised a little more than $7,000 when the vote results were announced.

“Everybody is stressed out” about going without pay, said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School, “but this is the sacrifice we’re willing to make.”

Challenge

Rocked by scandal, a weakened IPS teachers union faces an uncertain future

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Veteran educator Lora Elliott grew suspicious of the Indianapolis Education Association last year when just 3.9 percent of members voted in the annual election.

The anger was palpable when more than 50 teachers gathered for their monthly union meeting on the northeast side of Indianapolis. The crowd was about twice as large as usual, with many newcomers packed into the conference room.

Frustrated teachers raised a litany of issues, including potential layoffs, hundreds of high school teachers displaced, and a recent Indianapolis Education Association election in which just 3.9 percent of members voted. Then, veteran educator Lora Elliott stood clutching a statement that stretched more than four single-spaced pages. Among her complaints: that the union was failing to follow its own financial rules.

“I am asking for the immediate removal of the president, the first vice president, the second vice president, the secretary/treasurer, and all regional directors for dereliction of duty and failure to maintain fiscal responsibility,” Elliott’s statement read.

The allegations made that May afternoon would eventually trigger an investigation from the state union — and the resignation of Rhondalyn Cornett, who had led the teachers union in Indianapolis Public Schools for five years, amid accusations that she mishandled $100,000 in union funds. Detectives assigned to the Marion County Grand Jury Division are investigating the matter, according to a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

But in fact even before the resignation, the 900-member Indianapolis Education Association’s position was precarious. The union’s financial problems appear to have begun well before Cornett took over — IRS records show the union lost its federal tax-exempt status several years ago, and, according to the state teachers union, it has not filed returns in recent years.

State laws and district policies, meanwhile, have for years chipped away at the organization’s power and influence. The bargaining unit shrunk by 14 percent over three years as the district turned a growing share of schools over to outside operators whose teachers aren’t represented by the union — a sea change in Indianapolis education that some say the union could have fought more vigorously.

As a result, fewer than half of district teachers are members, and some teachers wonder if there is any point in paying dues to join a weakened union that seems to offer them very little. The turmoil leaves teachers in a district that is a hotbed of change vulnerable at a time when they perhaps need representation the most.

Cornett didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, and current union president Ronald Swann declined an interview for this story and did not respond to emailed questions. Supporters of the union’s current administration, though, believe it can be rebuilt and point to a recent victory: Indianapolis Public Schools granted teachers pay raises last month. In another sign of strength, two union-backed candidates defeated incumbents to win seats on the school board.

Still, other members argue that its problems run too deep for the union to be repaired — and teachers must start anew.

Now, Elliott and LaMeca Perkins-Knight, another frustrated union loyalist, are looking for other teachers to join them in a bid to replace the Indianapolis Education Association with a new organization. They began holding meetings this week to lay out their agenda. The crowds were small, and one on Tuesday attended by a current union leader grew contentious. Still, the pair plan to continue campaigning.

“Members have been disenfranchised,” Perkins-Knight said. “We plan to grassroot it, go out and talk to some teachers and see what they want to do.”

Losing power for years

Cornett taught for about two decades before leaving the classroom to run the union. The daughter of a union worker at Chrysler, she asked about joining the teachers union the day she started work in Indianapolis Public Schools, Cornett said in an August 2018 interview before she resigned.

When Cornett took over the Indianapolis Education Association in 2013, it was already contending with a barrage of state policies that constrained its power. Two years before, Democratic lawmakers fled the state in a showdown over restrictions on labor — but despite the protest, a host of controversial education bills prevailed.

In the end, the Republican-controlled legislature stripped teachers of the power to negotiate most work conditions, largely confining bargaining to wages and wage-related benefits. At the same time, lawmakers expanded non-union charter schools, created a new private school voucher program, and overhauled teacher evaluations.

The changes were just the latest blow to Indiana teachers unions. Twenty-three years before the recent Janus ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court took away the right of public sector unions to collect fees from non members, an Indiana law had already eliminated those fees for teachers.

“The law here has in some ways undermined union power,” said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. If membership shrinks, he said, “the union will have less resources, it will be less of a voice for teachers, and as a result, you worry that the state legislature and the school boards won’t pay enough attention to teachers’ needs.”

On top of the state restrictions, the teachers union is facing an entirely different threat in Indianapolis Public Schools. Two years after Cornett took over as president, the school district began a radical experiment where schools are handed over to outside managers who employ teachers not represented by the district union.

So-called “innovation” schools proliferated under the leadership of former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who left Indianapolis this month after he was tapped to lead the Washington, D.C., school system. Over the past four years, a dozen schools have been removed from the teachers bargaining unit. And between 2014-15 and 2017-18, the number of teachers covered by the Indianapolis Education Association contract fell by 14 percent, or 330 fewer teachers, to about 2,000 teachers.

Cornett was well aware that the deck was stacked against the union. In August, Cornett said lawmakers had taken “so much of our power away.” But, she added, teachers were not weak: they could still influence policy if they spoke up — by writing letters, going to meetings, and making calls.

Still, despite her rhetoric, the union’s losses were swift and met with relative quiet. In 2017, for example, district leaders used a little-known provision of state law to expel the union from a troubled middle school. Cornett didn’t know until the summer when she learned from a teacher who applied for a job at the school.

Many observers agree that the union’s position was weak because of state laws. But some argue that it could have done more to resist the rapid expansion of innovation schools.

The former leader of the IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that’s skeptical of innovation schools, Dountonia Batts said that in other places around the country, teachers have gotten together to push back against charter schools in a way that didn’t happen in Indianapolis.

“I don’t think people really understood the impact that innovation schools were going to have on public education,” Batts said. “It’s heartbreaking because the power that the union traditionally stood for has for all intents and purposes been deflated.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
LaMeca Perkins-Knight is one of two Indianapolis Public Schools teachers leading a campaign to replace the local teachers union.

Perkins-Knight argues that the union should have anticipated the campuses that might become innovation schools and done more to resist. At schools with chronically low test scores, they could have trained teachers to try and improve results. At higher performing schools where principals were considering voluntarily converting to innovation status, the union could have done more to organize teachers who were opposed, she said.

At a time when the union was under siege, poor management made it even less effective, said longtime union member and social studies teacher Mark Thomas.

“We need to step our game up,” he added. “To do that, you’ve got to have a tightly run organization, and we didn’t.”

‘I’ve never been given a reason to be invested’

When Perkins-Knight got a job in Indianapolis Public Schools more than a decade ago, one of the first things she did was join the teachers union. She grew up in East Chicago, an industrial community just across the border from Illinois. And her father was a union leader for United Steelworkers. “I’m union bred,” she said.

Perkins-Knight is not alone. Many members of the Indianapolis Education Association share a personal connection to unions. They have fathers, mothers, and husbands who were in unions, and they see joining the association as a way they can support other teachers. But union membership in other industries is shrinking, too. In 1964, more than 40 percent of workers in Indiana were in unions — the third highest rate in the country. Fifty years later, that number fell to about 10 percent.

Most teachers in traditional public school districts in Indiana are union members. But teachers must affirmatively choose to join the union. As union membership declines around the state, teachers unions can no longer rely on ingrained loyalty to recruit new educators, who often start careers with student debt and may be reluctant to pay dues that exceed $800 per year. Besides, non-union teachers working at district schools continue to get many of the advantages a union membership brings with it. The organization negotiates their salary and benefits, and they have the same contract as teachers in the union.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, membership has swung up and down recently, but this year there are about 900 teachers in the local union, down about 80 teachers from four years ago, according to self-reported state data. Because only 49.7 percent of the district’s teachers are dues-paying members, the state sent letters to teachers in November notifying them of their right to challenge the union — a new requirement championed by Republican lawmakers two years ago.

Plus, many Indianapolis teachers now work in independently managed charter schools without teachers unions.

Teacher Shivani Goyal worked in Indianapolis Public Schools for three years without joining the teachers union. She didn’t have strong feelings about unions, and as a new teacher, she didn’t want to pay the dues, she said.

“I’ve never been given a reason to be invested in it,” said Goyal, who took a job teaching first grade at an innovation school without a union this year.

For Perkins-Knight, in contrast, the union was a way for her to have a voice in the future of the district. She catapulted into union leadership after she helped launch a campaign to end a pay freeze for teachers. She was vice president and second in command for three years.

But as she moved up in the union, Perkins-Knight became more and more concerned about its management.

A low-turnout election

On a Thursday in April, Elliott dashed off a quick email. “Question needed answer…” she wrote to a staffer with the state teachers association. Had they emailed members the ballot for the local chapter election in March?

A 25-year educator who would later confront union leadership at the May meeting, Elliott had become increasingly suspicious of Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers union. She wanted more updates on what the union was doing, she wanted to know how leaders were spending her dues, and she wanted to vote in the election.

She received a reply later that day saying the state union had sent the ballot to her work email. Elliott replied politely — “I did not want to place blame if there was no blame to place,” she wrote — but she was frustrated. She had not received the email and hadn’t voted, and she feared many other teachers hadn’t, either.

In Cornett’s email announcing the election results, she acknowledged that she was contacted by two teachers who did not initially receive a ballot.

Ultimately, just 3.9 percent of the union members voted, according to Cornett’s email, which Elliott shared with Chalkbeat.

Since there was no competition for some of the offices, including the presidency held by Cornett, not many races were on the ballot. But whatever the reason, the low participation hinted at a problem, said Thomas, the union member who was frustrated by the association’s management. “This just tells you that nobody is really invested in even their organization.”

For Elliott, the election results added to her growing sense that union leaders were operating without much scrutiny. So she showed up at the May meeting determined to make sure everyone heard her concerns. She rallied other union members, urging them to join. And in a room full of people, she recited a litany of concerns. It was Elliott’s report, which she said she later emailed to the Indiana State Teachers Association, that led the group to investigate the local union’s finances.

“We have ourselves to blame because we became complacent,” Elliott said. “I had my head in the sand.”

Financial questions emerge

Perkins-Knight had been worried about the union’s finances for months. As far back as September 2017, she raised concerns that she had not been given a budget or “financial reporting” for the Indianapolis Education Association. Because of those problems, she said she would not sign checks for the union and asked for her name to be removed from the bank account, according to an email to Cornett and other leaders that Perkins-Knight shared with Chalkbeat.

Two months after the tumultuous May meeting, Perkins-Knight posted on Facebook that she had decided to quit the union and called on others to join her. In a long list of complaints, she wrote, “IEA has not been financially accountable to their members for almost a decade.”

In fact, the financial problems went much further than even Perkins-Knight imagined.

In a stunning email days after the November general election, the ISTA revealed the results of it’s months-long investigation into the Indianapolis union’s finances. The investigation concluded that Cornett had used her Indianapolis Education Association debit card to withdraw about $100,000 in cash for personal use, and the state union reported the allegations to the police, according to Kim Clements-Johnson, ISTA’s communications director.

The matter involving Indianapolis Education Association funds is being investigated by detectives assigned to the Marion County Grand Jury Division, according to Peg McLeish, the communications director for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. Cornett did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Chalkbeat for this story. It is unclear if she has retained an attorney.

In addition to Cornett’s alleged misuse of funds, the union failed to file financial paperwork for years, records show. In 2008, the organization was administratively dissolved by the state of Indiana because of failure to file regular paperwork or pay fees, according to a spokeswoman for the Indiana Secretary of State. Four years later — the year before Cornett took office — the IRS automatically revoked its tax-exempt status because it had been years since the union filed a return, according to the IRS website. Clements-Johnson confirmed that it’s tax-exempt status was revoked.

The state union is playing a role in righting the local’s finances. “The local president egregiously mismanaged the local’s finances and it will take some time to get the house in order,” wrote Clements-Johnson in an email.

The dissolution of the nonprofit could open union officers up to personal liability if the organization is sued, said Zachary Kester, executive director of the nonprofit law firm Charitable Allies. The tax problems could lead to penalties from the IRS, but the larger cost for nonprofits in similar situations is often the administrative and legal work it takes to reinstate the organization and regain tax-exempt status, he said. The process includes filing past due tax returns, and the cost of getting into good standing is sometimes high enough that his clients choose to abandon their old nonprofits and form new ones, Kester said.

Diane Swanson, a professor of management and ethics at Kansas State University, said the problem goes beyond the allegations against Cornett. It shows that the organization did not have good financial oversight practices.

“There have been enough warnings here,” she said. “This has been going on for a while, as indicated by the losing of the tax-exempt status. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

An uncertain future

The Indianapolis Education Association is trying to move on and rebuild. When the state union confronted Cornett with the allegations of financial mismanagement, she resigned, and the vice president took over. In recent months, the union has had some victories.

In November, days before Cornett resigned, two candidates supported by the union — who were critical of the current administration and the fast spread of innovation schools — won seats on the school board, a rare show of strength for the local union. Then in December, teachers in the district won substantial raises.

But the raise was championed by district leaders, who spent a year campaigning for a tax increase to fund the pay bump. When it came time to negotiate, it took the district and the union less than two days to reach a deal.

In a statement in response to written questions from Chalkbeat, Clements-Johnson wrote that the ISTA has taken control of the local’s finances for the next two years, and it is working with local leadership to put controls in place to prevent future issues.

“IEA has bargained a strong contract reflecting higher teacher compensation achieved through advocacy on the passage of two referenda,” Clements-Johnson wrote. “IEA remains a strong, valuable partner in serving educators and students in Indianapolis.”

Nathan Blevins, a middle school teacher who co-chairs the local union’s membership committee, said leaders are taking steps to ensure that its finances are transparent, and he has faith in the organization.

“This is really an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “We are just really looking at moving forward. We had a great win with the contract this year.”

Some members of the union still have concerns.

Kevin Sandorf, a high school English teacher, said he thinks that it will be harder to recruit new members because it “casts a bad light on the organization” that Cornett was able to allegedly misuse money without someone else in the union noticing. “How was this allowed to go on so long?”

At first, the stunning news of Cornett’s alleged mismanagement and resignation seemed like an opportunity to Perkins-Knight and Elliott, who both rejoined the union. But that optimism was fleeting.

Although Cornett is gone, other union leaders have remained, they said, and they do not have confidence in the union.

Now, Perkins-Knight and Elliott are poised to take a more drastic step: campaigning to replace the Indianapolis Education Association with a new union, a process that would begin with convincing 20 percent of teachers to support a petition. If they trigger a district-wide election, teachers could also vote not to have a union at all.

That’s a risk the two lifelong union supporters are willing to take.

“I would prefer for us to have that collective teacher voice, because teacher voice is important for us,” Perkins-Knight said. But the union is so powerless now, she said, losing a union altogether is not so scary. “Even without a union, I don’t think much is going to change for us.”