Future of Schools

Read Mayor Bill de Blasio’s speech outlining a $150M plan for school improvement

The city will spend $150 million to turn around more than 90 struggling schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday, and is prepared to reorganize or close schools that don’t succeed after getting additional help.

The 94 schools will be designated “community schools” and offer a variety of extra services like English classes for parents and mental-health services meant to address students’ and families’ out-of-school needs. Each of the schools will add an extra hour of instruction to the school day and receive funding for extra after-school seats, summer programs, and additional teacher training.

Speaking at the Coalition School for Social Change in East Harlem, De Blasio said the city would “move heaven and earth” to help the schools succeed, and sharply criticized the Bloomberg administration for consigning low-performing schools to closure and starving them of resources. But the mayor’s three-year plan includes new accountability measures for the schools, which will be expected to meet new standards or face staff changes, reorganization, or closure.

“If we do not see improvement after three years – and after all of these reforms and new resources – we will close any schools that don’t measure up,” de Blasio said. “Not casually, as was too often done in the past, but as a last resort – if necessary.”

The announcement comes eight weeks into the school year and follows advocates’ increasingly vocal calls for a struggling-schools plan from city officials. The city was required to submit improvement plans to the state for roughly 250 low-ranked schools this summer, but asked for months-long extension. De Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have said for weeks that a plan was forthcoming.

We’ll have more on the city’s plan throughout the day. Here’s de Blasio’s full speech, as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Chirlane. Boy am I lucky to have such an amazing partner in life. And this City is lucky to have a First Lady so committed to all of our families.

It is a pleasure to be here at the Coalition School for Social Change, with our City officials and commissioners, community members and leaders, and our elected officials, including our Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district we are in. And I would like to thank Principal John Sullivan for hosting us.

This school is in the heart of East Harlem, a community full of enormous pride and energy, which I felt the minute I walked in the door. This is a perfect place to be talking about our subject today – improving education in New York City. The energetic leadership of Principal Sullivan and the dedication of teachers and administrators have brought a new vitality to this school—and students report excitement about a curriculum that offers everything from architecture to computer repair.

But, unfortunately, as a state designated “Focus School,” for much of its recent history, it was forced to fend for itself by the last administration. And that is why we are here today. We reject the notion of giving up on any of our schools—and any of our children.

That is why I chose Carmen Fariña as Schools Chancellor—a tenacious leader with a proven track record for helping schools. And it is why we are announcing a bold new plan for turning around our City’s struggling schools.

Before I get to that, I’d like to start by taking you back to December 1994. It was not a particularly historic month for the world—but it was a big one for the de Blasio family. That is when Chirlane and I first laid eyes on Chiara. As those of you who are parents know, in that instant so many thoughts go through a new parent’s mind. Love, of course. But also panic. All of a sudden, you are responsible for a child’s life. And that moment changes everything. There is now someone whose future you care about even more than your own.

If I had to trace when my interest in public education became personal it was that day – 20 years ago, at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, when Chirlane and I suddenly had a whole new reason to care about New York City schools.

Chirlane and I sent Chiara—and later, Dante—to public schools in Brooklyn. And we became active public school parents. I served on the school board, and Chirlane and I went to more parent-teacher conferences and school plays than we could count.

Today, I stand before you as the first Mayor in New York City history to send a child to public schools while in office. For every public school parent who has ever complained about not wanting their local school to be closed or not liking how high-stakes testing was being used, and said to themselves, “things would be different if the Mayor knew what it was like to have a child in public schools,” now is our time. Chirlane and I worried—as every parent has since the dawn of time—how we would educate Chiara and Dante for adulthood.

We know what it is like to walk a small child to school on that nervous first day—to let go of that tiny hand—and then to agonize over whether you have chosen the right school and whether your child will thrive there. And we have lived through the rest of the milestones until that final year of high school, when you worry about what comes next. We have been through what every public school family in this city goes through. We get it – because we have lived it. From our family to your family, we say: we want you to have what we had—schools that work.

Our experience as public school parents has guided our vision for the public schools, including our firm commitment to make parents our partners. I want to say at the outset: New York has many kinds of schools, including charter and religious schools, and all of them play an important roleWe want to support all of them—and the children who go there. But today I will focus on district schools, which educate the vast majority of our children.

Before I talk about where we are going, I want to talk for a moment about where we have been.Over the sweep of decades, we have left children behind—year after year. We divided our school system into “good schools” and “bad schools.” And we wrote off the ones we called “bad.”

Many of you know first-hand what those written-off schools looked like. They were resource-poor. Teachers were hamstrung. The best teachers generally did not want to work in these schools. And parents were shut out. These schools—their teachers—parents—students—felt put down. Because they were put down—by Mayors, and even some schools chancellors.

And those discouraging words matter. Because just as a can-do attitude can be a key factor in success—a can’t-do attitude all but ensures failure. At the same time we were writing off schools, we were writing off students. We divided our children into those we believed could succeed and those we were convinced would fail. We decided some of them had the right to dream great dreams, and others would have the bright hopes of youth extinguished at an early age.

My Administration rejects these cruel divisions. Not only because they are morally wrong, but because their underlying assumptions are wrong. No neighborhood or school has a monopoly on brains and talent. The man who discovered the vaccine for polio, Jonas Salk, was born to a poor immigrant family right here in East Harlem. The first Latina on the Supreme Court—the brilliant Sonia Sotomayor—grew up in public housing in the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood. The person who helps save the world from global warming could be enrolled in pre-k in East Harlem right now—and we need to make sure she gets the education she needs to do it.

We need to reform the school system so every neighborhood has high-quality schools, every school is one parents would want to send their children to; and every child receives the education he or she needs to succeed in life. In other words, we need a system committed to success for all—and we cannot wait.

I have talked a lot about the tale of two cities. We have said we want to create “One city, rising together.” To get there, we must create “One school system, rising together.” At Riverside Church in the spring, I made a commitment to “shake the foundations” of the school system. In education, there is nothing more foundational than early childhood learning. We believed every child in the city should receive pre-K as a matter of right. And in our first nine months, we secured the funding and put the plans in place. As a result, every 4-year-old will get a free, high-quality pre-k education, and a fairer start in life. Our “Pre-K For All” initiative has gotten a lot of attention.

But we are carrying out other, equally ambitious reforms which are also having a profound impact. First, we have made an historic investment in extending the school day – nearly doubling the number of middle school students in extended-day programs.  Programs that reach young people at an age when it is so easy to get pulled in the wrong direction.

Over 40,000 middle school students who would have been hanging out on the streets or home alone will now spend that time learning and creating.  These programs provide high-quality academic enrichment, tutoring, and extra help with school work. Like “Pre-K For All,” these extended-day programs: Give students educational opportunity and social support at a key age; and put them in a better position to succeed in life. Second, we have dramatically increased the role of parents in our schools.  There is a basic principle every parent understands: Los pádres son los priméros y mejóres maéstros de nuéstros níños. Parents are our children’s first and best teachers. Las escuélas funciónan mejór cuándo los pádres se siénten bienvenídos, cuándo están involucrádos – y cuándo puéden participár en la educación de sus híjos. Schools work best when parents feel welcome, when they are involved – and when they participate in their children’s education, regardless of what language they speak at home.

Our new teachers’ contract builds in more time for teachers to reach out to parents: forty additional minutes every Tuesday for face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and emails. This extra time makes an enormous difference. At P.S. 149 in Jackson Heights – Parents used to wait until November to meet their children’s teachers – if they met them at all. And because teachers did not have to stay as late under the old contract, meetings had to occur during the school day, when many parents couldn’t attend.

This year, thanks to the new contract, P.S. 149 held a “Family Night” attended by 700 parents and caregivers.  Our belief in parental involvement is not just an article of faith. There is research showing it makes a big difference. A Harvard Graduate School of Education study from 2012 found: Strong teacher-family communication increased class participation by 15 percent; and increased the likelihood students completed their homework by 40 percent.

Third, we have greatly expanded teacher professional development. Since June, we have had more than 13,000 participants, including over 8,000 teachers in our training sessions. Fourth, we have created a new, more innovative kind of school – known as PROSE schools. We have given them more independence to depart from DOE and union rules when they think it makes sense to rewrite the playbook. And in everything from teaching methods to hiring decisions, they are adapting to meet the specific needs of their communities and students.

The initiatives we put in place in our first 10 months are not just good ideas – they are having a real impact on the quality of teaching, and on the connection students and families feel to schools. We have started to reimagine education.  And we have put down a new foundation for everything to follow.

Today, I want to tell you about what is coming next. We are making a major commitment to a model we believe will improve education citywide. And we are making it the centerpiece of a major new initiative to turn around struggling schools.

The model is Community Schools. We have talked about Community Schools before, but today we are announcing plans to use them in a much bigger way. Community schools embody the values we believe should drive public education and make a real difference in student achievement.

So what are Community Schools? They are schools built on a philosophy that has been described as “whole child, whole school, whole community.” “Whole child” means they focus on all of a child’s needs – not just academics. They address a child’s mental, physical, social and emotional well-being in addition to their academic needs. And, in many cases, these schools address problems at home.

Our Schools Chancellor likes to say, “If a child is hungry she cannot focus.” That is why a Community School might have a food pantry for students’ families. A parent who does not understand English may have trouble helping a child with homework. That is why a Community School might offer English language classes for parents. Children from every economic background come to school with their own particular challenges, including mental health needs.

Community schools have ways to identify children who are struggling – and to offer help early in their lives. The second part of the Community School philosophy is “whole school.” This is the idea that principals, teachers, and parents should work as close partners to address the needs of all kids—from the most troubled to the valedictorian.

In the past, too often parents were only invited to come to school when there was a problem. Community Schools see parents as collaborators every step of the way. Chirlane and I have always seen Chiara and Dante’s schools not just as schools, but second homes —an extension of our family. That is the Community School model. Schools in which parents are not only included – but feel right at home.

Finally, “whole community” means Community Schools have strong connections to their neighborhoods.  Some schools have fallen into the trap of shutting out the community and acting like self-declared islands. Community Schools are neighborhood hubs – open to everyone, often on evenings and weekends. There is another way to think about Community Schools: as schools for “The Way We Live Now.

Our schools were created in a vastly different era, which ran on the agricultural calendar, when families did not always need two incomes, when most women did not work outside the home, when high school was meant to prepare many graduates for factory jobs and unskilled labor. We cannot expect a model created in the 1800s to deliver a 21st century education. Community Schools are designed for us, here and now: they invite parents and other members of the community in on their own schedule; and they prepare students for the jobs of today – which increasingly require skills previous generations could not have dreamt of.

So, what would you see if you walked into a Community School and took a look around? Many of the things you see in any school. A principal. Teachers. Classrooms. But you might also see doctors, nurses, and psychologists, who are identifying challenges students have, and working on them.  Some of these challenges are small, but critical, like a student who does not have eyeglasses and cannot see the blackboard. Others are bigger.

P.S. 78, the Stapleton Lighthouse Community School in Staten Island, makes mental health a priority. It has a Behavior Intervention Team with a guidance counselor, psychologist, and social workers, as well as staff from two nearby mental health clinics.  It identifies students with challenges like ADHD or depression and gets them help quickly, before their education suffers.

So, as we continue our tour of a Community School, what else do we see? Parents – a lot of parents. Community schools make sure parents know that they have a stake in the school their children attend.  Getting parents involved is not just a nice idea – it is critical for an effective school.  When parents believe in a school – when they are truly invested – their children benefit.  Parents work closely with teachers. Homework assignments get done. More reading time happens at home.

There’s one more thing we see as we look around a Community School: more resources. Community Schools understand there are a lot of people rooting for New York City school kids who want to help, and they draw on all of the community’s resources. One newly-designated Community School on the Lower East Side got Lowe’s to donate a washer and dryer for parents to use. The washer and dryer helps ensure that even the poorest parents can send their kids to school with clean clothing. And they get parents comfortable coming to their children’s school.

At this same school, NYU Dental comes every week to do checkups and cleanings. And Creative Artists Agency, the big talent agency, gives children who are living in temporary housing backpacks, thanksgiving dinners for their families, and holiday presents.Other Community Schools have partnerships with major museums, local businesses, and civic groups. A former employer of mine likes to say that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Community schools understand that in our modern world it takes a neighborhood to educate one. Community Schools can – and in time will – make a difference in every part of the city.

But we will be using them, in particular, as a tool for helping the schools that need it most. I said I would be talking about a plan for turning around struggling schools. Today, I am announcing a $150 million initiative. It’s officially called “The School Renewal Program.” But I like to think of it by a simpler name: “No Bad Schools” because that is what it is about – ensuring no child in the City goes to a school that does not provide a high-quality education.

Now, “bad school” is not a formal educational term, but it is, for too many parents and students, a reality, and how many people in this City refer to certain schools. For decades, there have been schools everyone knows are not working, even if there are good administrators, teachers, parents and students who are part of them.

Our new initiative is focused on 94 struggling schools. These are the schools we have identified as most in need of help, and we are beginning with them. Remember, these are the kind of schools the system wrote off in the past in two ways – both harmful to students.

First, in many cases, with neglect – letting schools commit educational malpractice year after year on innocent students. In other cases schools like these were abruptly shut down with too much reliance on test scores in making the decision and not enough effort to save them. Often, the closing added insult to injury – because after years of neglect, a school the community was deeply attached to was declared a failure, when in fact it was City government that had failed.

By not doing enough to make the school a success, like giving it the resources it needed or the principal and staff it needed, as schools were phased-out, they had fewer resources – from courses, to services for students with special needs. We are going to do something different, something rarely tried before. We are going to give these schools the tools they need to succeed. I want to say at the outset that we are already doing a great deal for these struggling schools – things that were not being done before.

I told you about some of these: extended-day programs, increased programs to bring in parents, and extra professional development time for teachers. But now we will be going much further, with a new set of initiatives designed to turn every one of our Renewal Schools into a successful school. First, we will transform every Renewal School into a Community School. This is a major step, which will completely change how these schools operate.

Second, we will provide something parents and educators agree is critical: more time in the school day. Every student in a Renewal School will get an extra hour of instructional time every day. I know it may make a lot of students unhappy, but there is no better way to get students to learn than putting them in a classroom with a capable teacher and getting down to work.  Renewal Schools will also be getting extra after-school seats, further increasing the time students have to learn.

Third, Renewal Schools will get extra professional training for teachers. And finally, we will offer high-quality, academically focused summer programs at all of the Renewal Schools, so students will have significant extra time in the calendar year to learn. We are backing all of this with a major investment of dollars.

These 94 Renewal Schools will get an additional $150 million. This is a considerable amount of money – but it is just a start. The total cost of turning around all of our schools will be significantly more. We will need Albany to step up and help us.

The last part of Renewal Schools is in some ways the most important: accountability.  I want to be clear about our vision. We will plan for success, and we will dedicate more resources to achieving it. But we will also hold our schools and educational professionals responsible for failure, and we will use our power under the teachers’ contract, and other means, to do it.

We will apply this vision – of extra help, but full accountability – to every one of these struggling schools. And we will do it in three ways.

First, through teachers – the great majority of our teachers are highly capable and hardworking – and have been clamoring for more support, and we will give it to them.

But there are also teachers who are not delivering for students. We will work with these teachers and help them do better with more resources, including high-performing teachers to serve as mentors. But we will also do more to document the problems of poorly performing teachers, and while respecting their due process rights, we will make changes in the faculty of schools that fail to improve despite these significant new efforts at supporting them.  We know this kind of accountability is necessary and we know it’s something most teachers support as strongly as we do.

Second, through Principals – as our Chancellor will tell you, nothing helps a school turnaround more than a great principal. And many struggling schools have principals like John Sullivan who are right for the job, but some principals need to do better and our job is to help them. That includes having experts from inside and outside the school system provide intensive coaching.

And we are increasing the role our superintendents play supervising and supporting principals of Renewal Schools. We have already brought in a new team of superintendents, and they will spend more time providing coaching and guidance. But if these efforts do not work, we will use the authority the law gives us to remove principals and other school leaders, and put in leaders who can get the job done.

Third, through the schools themselves – we will give Renewal Schools every chance to become better and stronger, including unprecedented levels of support. We will move Heaven and earth to help them succeed, but we will not wait forever. If we do not see improvement after three years – and after all of these reforms and new resources – we will close any schools that don’t measure up. Not casually, as was too often done in the past, but as a last resort – if necessary.

Holding schools accountable is critical – because all of the reform plans in the world will make little difference if there are no consequences for failing.

These are our blueprints for reform, and for shaking the foundations of education in New York City. Our Renewal Schools initiative begins immediately. We have already begun taking the critical first steps, including the following. The Chancellor is evaluating principals and other leaders of Renewal Schools – to make sure our school leadership improves immediately.

We will begin mentoring principals and increasing professional development for teachers without delay – to improve instruction right away. We are starting right now to recruit more guidance counselors and other staff to be added to struggling schools in the spring.  And we are acting quickly to create and strengthen Parent Teacher Association and School Leadership Teams. These groups give parents a voice in their children’s schools, but not all schools have ones that are functioning. We will ensure that these vital parent organizations exist in every Renewal School by January 15.

In the Second Year, more changes will be visible in all Renewal Schools. With the new school year, we will be adding highly experienced Master Teachers to work with existing faculty. We will place additional mental health professionals, guidance counselors, and other professionals in Renewal Schools.

And we will have in place – pending approval of Council of School Supervisors & Administrators – innovative “Ambassador Teams.” These expert teams will come in from the outside, and will include a highly skilled principal, assistant principals, and teachers to lead the school and assess the school needs, and they will act quickly and decisively to bring about necessary changes.

We will demand fast and intense improvement – and we will see that it happens. My impatience for change comes from a very personal place. As I said, Chirlane and I stand here before you today not as Mayor and First Lady, but as proud public school parents, and we developed these reforms not just as public servants, but as people who have spent much of our adult lives as the father and mother of public school students.

It is partly about what public school parents know – from long experience with the school system. But it is really about something much deeper: that profound responsibility that every parent feels, that total commitment we have to our children.

A parent does not just hope their children’s lives turn out well. For them, it is the most important thing in the world. To make it happen, parents cross oceans, scrimp on their own wishes and dreams, and if need be, they risk their lives.  Because what matters to them more than anything else is their children’s future. This total commitment to our children was something Chirlane and I felt from the moment we first laid eyes on Chiara. And we felt it again when we first saw Dante.

And it is something I know every parent here today felt the minute they became a mother or father. Parents believe in their children with a pure faith, and fight for them with undying tenacity.

These are the values our school system must have – a parent’s faith in every child, and a parent’s commitment not to give up. And that is my promise to you today – that we believe in every child in the New York City schools, and we will not give up on a single one.

Thank you.

 

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.”