Challengers withdraw petition to replace the IPS teachers union but pledge to try again

A group of educators withdrew their petition last week to decertify and replace the existing Indianapolis Public Schools teachers union over an error on the application — but they say they will try again later this year.

The Indianapolis Teachers Society, an upstart group led by teachers who had lost faith in the Indianapolis Education Association, launched a push to replace the union earlier this year after its president stepped down amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

But LaMeca Perkins-Knight, one of the founders of the competing group, said the society withdrew the petition to the state because of a technical error in describing which teachers it hoped to represent. She said the group plans to file a new petition in July, when the next window for challenging the union under state law opens.

For the society to successfully petition for an election over the union, state law requires it to show that 20 percent of educators who are covered by the district contract, about 380 teachers, support the newly formed group. Perkins-Knight said the group met that threshold, but it hasn’t submitted the signatures out of concerns the signers would face retaliation from the current union. She could not provide a total number of signers.

Still, Perkins-Knight acknowledged the society’s members have a long way to go. They need more money to fund the challenge of the existing association, and they need to win over rank and file teachers. In the coming months, they plan to hold a listening tour around the district, Perkins-Knight said.

“There are a lot of people who distrust the union, but I think we haven’t built their trust either,” she said. “Change is hard.”

Ron Swann, president of the Indianapolis Education Association, said in a statement that the withdrawal of the petition showed the society did not garner support from educators. “The grass seed did not germinate,” wrote Swann, a high school science teacher.

“We are building upon our successes with teacher pay and evaluation support, as well as our advocacy efforts around the Red For Ed movement,” Swann wrote. “The IEA’s membership continues to grow as we continue our commitment to the professional staff and students of the Indianapolis Public Schools.”

The teachers society aims to replace the union. But a challenge also could leave about 1,900 teachers in the state’s largest district without union representation. If the society successfully petitions the state, it would lead to an election where district teachers vote on whether to keep the existing union, select the new group, or forgo union representation altogether.

Fending off the initial challenge is a substantial victory for the existing association, which has been roiled by scandal in recent months but has also won high profile victories.

After just 3.9 percent of members voted in the union election last spring, internal complaints about the functioning of the local triggered an investigation by the Indiana State Teachers Association. In November, the state union announced that the president of the local, Rhondalyn Cornett, had allegedly mishandled over $100,000 in union funds, and she resigned.

But some members, including former loyalists Perkins-Knight and Lora Elliott, felt the union had not done enough to respond to the alleged corruption or overhaul what they saw as a weak local. They formed the competing group, and, in February, they petitioned to replace the association.

At the same time, the union has had notable successes. Days before the ISTA revealed the allegations against Cornett, two union-backed candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools board defeated incumbents. And in December, after voters approved a property tax increase, the district and union negotiated a substantial raise for teachers, including drastically increasing the highest salary they can expect to earn.

Challenging the union may be long-shot but there is precedent. In 2017, after years of conflict with the administration over contracts, the teachers union in Carmel Clay Schools was easily defeated in an election by a new group.