breaking

Indianapolis Public Schools teachers union president out after alleged mishandling of more than $100,000

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Rhondalyn Cornett, center, at a 2017 IPS board meeting. Cornett resigned under pressure from the state teachers union.

The president of Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers union has resigned under pressure after an investigation indicated she had mishandled more than $100,000 over several years, the state’s largest teachers union announced Saturday.

The Indiana State Teachers Association investigation came after a member of the district union filed a complaint with the state union in June over how Rhondalyn Cornett operated the group. An audit completed this week “indicates serious financial mismanagement and misappropriation,” a statement from an ISTA spokeswoman said.

ISTA’s investigation discovered that Cornett had used her IEA debit card to withdraw about $100,000 in cash for personal use, spokeswoman Kim Clements-Johnson said. She said there were also additional debit card transactions that could not be accounted for, but she declined to elaborate on the amount of those expenses. The money in question has not been recovered, Clements-Johnson said.

In a text message, Cornett said she had no comment.

Cornett was asked to resign and did so effective Thursday, the statement said. Ronald Swann, the district union’s vice president, is now president, and helped lead the investigation and audit, the statement said.

“Because of the IEA president’s failure to meet her obligations toward sound financial management of members’ dues dollars, she has complied with a demand that she resign,” the statement said. “New local leadership has assumed control and are prepared to deal with the issue and move the Association forward in a positive direction.”

ISTA has taken control of the district union’s finances and will continue to manage them for the next two years. The statement said ISTA has also filed an insurance claim to possibly get back dues money for union members. The state union said it might also consider legal action.

The state union reported the mismanagement to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Organized Crime Section. It is not yet clear if any crimes have been committed, the statement said.

Cornett has been a teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools since 1994. She has been president of IEA since 2013, and she was reelected last spring.

IEA is a local association affiliated with the statewide union, which is Indiana’s branch of the National Education Association. The Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers union has about 900 members, according to a state report. That’s just under half the educators in the bargaining unit.

The IPS union, in addition to the statewide union, has often pushed back against some of the rapid changes in Indianapolis Public Schools, including the district’s partnerships with outside charter or nonprofit operators to run what are known as innovation schools. While those schools still fall under the district’s umbrella, its teachers are employed by the operators, rather then the district, so they are not able to join the district’s union.

Earlier this week, the teachers unions won a political victory at the ballot box. Two candidates who were endorsed by the political arms of the state and local teachers unions won seats in the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The candidates ousted two school-choice friendly incumbents with the help of the IPS Community Coalition, a group of community advocates critical of the district administration that has received funding from the NEA.

negotiations

Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.



story slam

The state of teacher pay in Indiana: Hear true stories told by local educators

It’s time to hear directly from educators about the state of teacher pay in Indiana.

Join us for another Teacher Story Slam, co-hosted by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Chalkbeat Indiana, and Teachers Lounge Indy. Teacher salaries are the hot topic in education these days, in Indiana and across the country. Hear from Indianapolis-area teachers who will tell true stories about how they live on a teacher’s salary.

Over the past two years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students, and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy.

Those stories include one teacher’s brutally honest reflection on the first year of teaching and another teacher’s uphill battle to win the trust of her most skeptical student.

Event details

The event will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at Clowes Court at the Eiteljorg, 500 W Washington St. in Indianapolis. It is free and open to the public — please RSVP.

More in What's Your Education Story?