The governor appointed a commission to study teacher pay. So far, they’ve met behind closed doors

Three retired corporate executives, a top philanthropist, and a nonprofit chief are among those trying to solve one of Indiana’s most pressing problems: raising teacher salaries.

They’re handling a charged issue that has teachers impatient for a fix since Indiana routinely ranks among the lowest states in teacher pay. And they’re already in hot water with some critics.

The commission, formed by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, met early controversy for not having any members who are teachers, except for one on the advisory council. Now, the group has met privately at least six times, prompting further concerns that educators are being shut out of discussions.

“I’m worried they’re having meetings behind closed doors, and teachers are not part of the conversation. It’s our pay. It’s our livelihood,” said Shawnta Barnes, a Wayne Township school librarian who writes for the education blog Indy K12. “It just makes you feel like the decision’s already been made.”

Commission chairman Mike Smith said the closed, unadvertised meetings aren’t “secretive.” The volunteer members have been gathering data, reaching out to state and national experts, and gearing up for a series of public input meetings that they want to hold this summer, he said.

Public input, he said, will be “absolutely essential” to forming recommendations ahead of the next state budget in 2021 on how much teachers should get paid and where the money would come from.

“The truth is that these challenges are so complex that it would be foolish not to invite as many people as possible to weigh in and provide useful input and suggestions,” Smith said. “None of us could possibly know everything required to make thoughtful, actionable recommendations to the governor and other policymakers.”

The governor’s office said the informal working group can meet privately because they are not making rules or laws. Smith, the former CEO of the Mayflower transportation company and former CFO of Anthem, said the meetings are important for the commission to get informed and organized, so that members can be better prepared for public input and action.

All the statistics and studies they’re looking at are already available in the public domain, he added, including information on the gap between teacher salaries in Indiana and neighboring states, and how low pay affects teacher recruitment and retention.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt said the commission is not subject to public meeting laws, even though it might appear to be a public agency because Holcomb announced the group during his State of the State address in January and named it the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission.

“By name only it appears like they might be [subject to the public meeting laws], but in functionality, they’re not,” Britt said. “It’s like a think tank, really, more than anything. They don’t have any power or authority to do anything, so they can’t really be taking official action on public business.”

But some experts say even if the commission does not need to meet public access laws, it’s inviting a perception problem by not opening its doors.

“I don’t know why this would be seen as something good for the public,” said Zachary Baiel, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. “Even though it may meet the letter of the law, there’s just general optics of the situation. This is a hotly debated topic.”

Working behind closed doors can make public input sessions seem like a “token gesture,” Baiel said, where feedback doesn’t factor into the decisions that are ultimately made.

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said the commission needs to strike a balance.

“How do they do this so you and I as residents of the state believe that nothing untoward is going on, and that we have an opportunity to provide input?” Downs said. “Unfortunately, we don’t know until after the fact whether we, the public, were listened to or not.”

The commission is key to Holcomb’s long-term strategy to address teacher salaries. Like in many states around the country, Hoosier teachers’ discontent over low pay boiled up this year, with some rallying for bigger paychecks. It’s a critical issue that has become more contentious for public school teachers against the backdrop of Indiana’s fiscal conservatism and proliferation of school choice, which some criticize for drawing dollars away from school districts.

Indiana falls behind neighboring states when it comes to teacher salaries, according to a recent analysis. In 2016-17, Indiana teachers made an average salary of $50,554, according to the National Center for Education Statistics — but starting salaries can be as low as $30,000.

This year, lawmakers sent more money overall to schools, relieved pension expenses, and directed districts to watch how much they’re spending on classroom expenses like teacher salaries. While some lawmakers argued that they cannot dictate local contract negotiations between school boards and teachers unions, some critics said lawmakers didn’t go far enough to find more money for salaries or ensure those dollars went to teachers.

The teacher pay commission is stacked with well-known names — Republican donors, top executives, and local leaders with deep community ties.

“A lot of them also have experience running businesses and finding efficiencies. That’s a key part of this process as well: Where do we find the money to pay teachers well?” said Tim George, the governor’s policy director who is working with the commission.

In addition to a deep business background, Smith is a past chairman of Indiana’s Commission for Higher Education, a DePauw University trustee, a former board member for two charter schools, and a supporter of local choice-friendly education reform groups The Mind Trust and Stand for Children. His family also started a charitable fund to combat poverty.

“I know no better way to improve the quality of K-12 education than through supporting and reinforcing the efforts and supporting the needs of teachers in K-12,” Smith told Chalkbeat.

The commission also includes one former educator and a charter school board member. Aside from Smith, the other six commission members did not respond to interview requests from Chalkbeat, declined to comment, or directed Chalkbeat to Smith or the governor’s office.

The commission’s work is supported by an advisory council, which includes the governor’s education adviser and representatives from the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Teachers Association. The advisory council also brings in a public school teacher, an administrator, and a superintendent.

“I see my role as providing the perspective of an educator. I want to share the dedication the profession requires – from the long hours working with families and students to the financial requirements as we often buy our own supplies or even snacks for students who don’t have enough to eat,” Westfield teacher and advisory council member Emily Holt wrote in an email to Chalkbeat.

Smith said the commission and the advisory council meet together and function as one entity. Within the whole group, about half are current or former educators, he said, noting the value of their perspectives.

“It’s a diverse group,” said Dan Holub, ISTA’s executive director, who also serves on the advisory council. “They’ve all asked really good questions. It’s a pretty sharp group. They’re figuring things out pretty fast.”

But Democrat Rep. Tonya Pfaff, a high school teacher in Terre Haute, said the lack of representation and private nature of the commission leaves her feeling in the dark.

“I just have no idea what this is going to look like, because we’ve not heard anything,” she said. “Are they on point with the issues that we in education have? We wouldn’t know, because it’s all private meetings.”

Who’s on the Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission:

  • Commission Chairman Michael L. Smith (Indianapolis), former chairman, president, and CEO of Mayflower Group and former executive vice president and CFO of Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Jená Bellezza (Gary), COO of Indiana Parenting Institute
  • Tom Easterday (Zionsville), former senior executive vice president, secretary, and chief legal officer for Subaru of Indiana Automotive
  • Marianne Glick (Indianapolis), chair of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Family Foundation and board member of the Gene B. Glick Company
  • Bob Jones (Evansville), recently retired chairman and CEO of Old National Bancorp
  • Katie Jenner (Madison), vice president of K-12 initiatives and statewide partnerships at Ivy Tech
  • Nancy Jordan (Fort Wayne), senior vice president of Lincoln Financial Group

Who’s on the advisory council:

  • Melissa Ambre (Noblesville), director of the Office of School Finance for the Indiana Department of Education
  • Lee Ann Kwiatkowski (Greenwood), senior education advisor to Gov. Holcomb
  • Emily Holt (Arcadia), math teacher at Westfield High School
  • Dan Holub (Indianapolis), executive director of the Indiana State Teachers Association
  • Denise Seger (Granger), chief human resource officer for Concord Community Schools in Elkhart
  • David Smith (Evansville), superintendent of Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation