Tina Ahlgren started getting nervous last year as she sifted through lists of names of Indianapolis Public Schools teachers who had decided not return for another year without a raise.
The Shortridge High School math teacher — IPS’s 2014 teacher of the year — said she was disappointed but not surprised to see some of her highest-performing colleagues on a list of resignations — including a finalist for the prestigious Hubbard Life-Changing Teacher Award.
“It wasn’t the new teachers, or the ones who can’t cut it,” Ahlgren said. “It wasn’t the retirees. It was the middle people … who had really tried to stick it out after five years of no increase. That’s scary.”
Ahlgren is leading a new coalition of both union and nonunion teachers called “Elevate IPS.” The group is advocating for a pay raise in next year’s contract, which if approved would be the first in more than five years.
The goal is preventing another exodus of IPS teachers to nearby districts — where the pay can be as much as 10 to 25 percent higher — and keeping good teachers in the classrooms with some of the city’s neediest children.
“It’s not even about retaining or getting quality teachers,” Ahlgren said. “We’re having trouble getting warm bodies in IPS. We really need to help close this pay gap. When we lose people, we’re losing our best people.”
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who has previously said he wants to give teachers a raise, said he is encouraged by the group and wants to work with them to find ways to improve pay. Union president Rhondalyn Cornett also said she supported it at a recent board meeting.
This year, Ferebee said, the district couldn’t afford the recurring cost that an across-the-board raise to base salaries would bring. So instead IPS’s contract with the union gave teachers a one-time, $1,500 performance bonus.
“Seeing a group of teachers come together around this could be huge for IPS,” Ferebee said. “Having an organized group of teachers outside of the (union) bargaining unit is very fascinating because we haven’t had that in the past. Anything and everything we can do to address compensation, I’m on board.”
But state budget changes still looming in the legislature could scuttle Ferebee’s plan to work a raise into the budget. Lawmakers are still in the process of approving the state’s next two-year budget.
The district stands to lose $18 million or more if changes to the state’s funding formula changes approved by the House last month become law. The Senate has not yet approved a budget and those numbers are likely to change.
But will they change enough for teachers to get a raise? Ferebee is worried about how the legislature’s decisions could affect the district’s bottom line, and could block efforts to pay raises.
“I’m not saying it will stop our work,” Ferebee said, “but it definitely compromises our ability to do so.”
Teachers who are part of Elevate IPS hope to make an appearance at the Statehouse before the budget negotiations are finalized. Ferebee said he wants to join them.
“I think that we need those same teachers with me when I’m testifying on the floor talking to legislators about our progress,” Ferebee said.
Harshman Middle School teacher Madeline Mason, one of 10 finalists for IPS’s Teacher of the Year award, urged board members to take the issue seriously when she spoke in front of the IPS school board last week on the group’s behalf.
“We’re about moving away from complaining in the hallways and in the teachers lounge and actually about taking action,” Mason said.
But IPS school board member Sam Odle said teachers are going to need to support the district making some tough spending cuts over the next few years if they want raises.
“The legislature is going to give us less money,” Odle said. “The option isn’t for us to print our own.”
Negotiations over a new contract with the union won’t take place again until next fall. But Ahlgren said it’s important for teachers who may be considering leaving the district to learn sooner rather than later if they can expect an increase in pay. Board members last summer said they were concerned when a sea of late resignations flooded in just before the school year.
Even an incremental increase would be appreciated, Ahlgren said, to slow the growing earnings gap between teachers in IPS and nearby districts.
A 2010 study by Teach Plus called “The Cost of Loyalty” found that a teacher who stays at IPS for 25 years stands to lose about $235,000 over a lifetime compared to a colleague in the same position less than 10 miles away in Decatur Township.
“We know that IPS can’t make up a $14,000 pay gap in one contract,” Ahlgren said. “It’s going to take a show of faith of a significant step in the right direction.”
Teacher pay can have real impact on student learning, the group says.
An inability to recruit teachers leads to vacancies, Ahlgren said. As recently as mid-March the district had about 65 unfilled teaching positions.
“At the elementary level when there’s teachers missing, the classrooms get consolidated and you end up with bigger class sizes,” Ahlgren said. “At the high school level, we just set permanent substitutes who may not be licensed or qualified.”
Effective teachers are also heavily recruited by other districts.
School 39 teacher Abby Taylor, who has been moved eight times to teach at different schools during her nine years in IPS, said it’s becoming harder and harder each year to stay with the district without a raise. She said she sometimes gets an offer to leave as often as every week.
“When word gets around you are a leader in your building, they’re going to ask you to come,” said Taylor, who is a member of Elevate IPS.
But the kids keep Taylor in IPS — for now.
“It shouldn’t have to be a choice between your family at home and your school family,” Taylor said. “We’re choosing both. We can’t do that forever.”