Educators waiting out teacher pay discussions

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Huntingburg Elementary English as a Second Language instructional assistant Ubaldo Gonzalez collects papers from third-graders at the school on Tuesday. Gonzalez spent his own money decorating the classroom and adding comfortable seating so that students will feel at home. 

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Across the country and in Indiana, teacher pay is a hot topic.

Teachers in Los Angeles went on strike earlier this month demanding higher pay, among other requests. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona also orchestrated demonstrations.

While no such teacher protests have happened in Indiana, the state legislature has made increasing teacher pay a priority this legislative session, and local school teachers are eagerly waiting to see what they come up with.

“This is the best we’ve seen in years,” said Nikki Roberts, a fourth-grade teacher at Ireland Elementary and president of the Jasper Classroom Teachers Association. “This is the first time the government has offered to help teachers.”

Since the legislative session started on Jan. 3, several suggestions for how to raise teacher pay have come up. On Jan. 7, Chalkbeat, an online education news source, reported that Indiana Republicans suggested schools cut costs in other areas to allocate more money to teacher pay, naming transportation, administrative costs and food service as places to make cuts.

Democratic Rep. Ryan Hatfield filed a bill that would mandate a minimum salary of $50,000 for full-time teachers, a considerable raise for many teachers given the average starting teacher salary in Indiana is $35,241, according to the National Education Association. And in his State of the State address, Gov. Eric Holcomb said the state would tap into its reserves to put $140 million toward pension liability for schools, thus reducing school corporations’ expenses so more funds can be put toward teacher salaries.

Local educators are waiting to see what, if anything, comes to fruition.

“Just from what I’ve been hearing, it sounds appealing; it sounds enticing,” said Jennifer Ashby, a third-grade teacher at Dubois Elementary. “But how is it going to be funded? Is it going to be sustainable?”

For teachers at the local level, their livelihood hinges on decisions made in Indianapolis. Local corporations pay teachers’ salaries and benefits out of the education fund, one of a few school funds that cover specific costs.

Unlike other school funds, which are funded through property taxes, the education fund is funded by the state legislature and dependent on enrollment, with each student earning the corporation between $6,500 and $7,000. From that fund, schools pay expenses related to student instruction, including teacher salaries and benefits.

The state further dictates teacher salaries by tying pay to performance evaluations and requiring teachers to bargain each year for their salaries and benefits depending on those evaluations. That’s where groups like the Jasper Classroom Teachers Association come into play.

However, administrators are limited in what they can offer teachers, as they only have so much money in the education fund. When negotiations for the year start in September, as mandated by the state, administrators say how much money they have to offer, and the teachers decide how to distribute it among themselves. They also bargain for benefits.

“In the last few years, we’ve been creative in the way we distribute that amount,” Roberts said of Greater Jasper Consolidated Schools.

To offer younger teachers a raise, for example, older teachers forfeited their raise in exchange for a one-time stipend. With that action, the younger teachers will likely continue to get at least the new salary year to year, but the older teachers are not guaranteed the stipend.

“You’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Roberts said.

At Northeast Dubois, the corporation did not have enough money to give teachers raises, so rather than bargain for higher salaries, the teachers association bargained for benefits, said Amy Mitchell, president of the Northeast Dubois Classroom Teachers Association and family and consumer science teacher at Northeast Dubois High School. Rather than getting raises, teachers there bargained for additional sick days, uncapped personal days and the ability for teachers to be foster parents or Court Appointed Special Advocates without having to use personal days for court obligations.

That may sound like a fair trade, but in many cases, teachers were also losing take home pay due to increasing health insurance premiums. Mitchell recalled losing $2,000 one year because the premium increased, but the corporation didn’t have the funding to offer teachers a raise.

In 2017, Northeast Dubois had enough funding to offer teachers a raise for the first time since 2012 thanks to additional property tax funding through the referendum that appeared on 2016 ballots.

“We are very thankful the community supported a referendum,” Mitchell said.

Roberts, Ashby and Mitchell all said they wished that both the public and legislators were more knowledgeable about the challenges educators face when it comes to funding and the money spent out of pocket. Often, teachers, principals and instructional assistants spend their own money for classroom supplies after the money the corporation can offer for those costs runs out, and it’s not uncommon for teachers to buy snacks or clothing for children in their classes whose families can’t afford them.

At Huntingburg Elementary, English as a Second Language instructional assistant Ubaldo Gonzalez estimates that he spends $300 of his own money a year on decorations and used furniture that he upcycles on his time off to make his students feel more comfortable in his classroom.

“I want to make it a comfy and happy place for the kids,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of them don’t like getting pulled out of class because it makes them look different.”

Unlike the teachers, Gonzalez and other instructional assistants are not included in the negotiations done by teachers associations. Their pay, however, does also come from the education fund.

Educators also frequently take their work home with them, putting in hours off the clock.

“When I leave and go home, it’s not me going home,” Mitchell said. “It’s me grading papers or answering emails that I didn’t get to that day.”

The out-of-pocket spending and the time spent working at home are all arguments educators use to justify more education funding and higher salaries. Those are also factors they see their colleagues consider before deciding to take a higher paying job at another school corporation or to leave teaching all together.

“Nobody wants to become a teacher with the pay and all the pressures,” Roberts said.

So, what keeps educators in education? Invariably, the answer is the kids.

“These kids are everything to me,” Mitchell said. “I think they deserve the best, so I’m going to stay as long as I can.”




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