Indiana

IPS teachers push for more pay through 'Elevate IPS'

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Last year, more than 150 IPS teachers assembled teacher compensation plans for a fictional school district from a variety of policy options as part of a TeachPlus event. Now teachers are pushing to try new strategies to raise teacher pay.

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.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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