FRANKTON – Though it’s illegal under state law for Indiana public school teachers to strike, there’s a possibility the strikes that have hit other deep-red states, including West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, could hit close to home, one local labor leader said.
“I think it will, and I kind of want it to. I think it’s long overdue that we draw attention to this,” said G. Randall Harrison, president of the Anderson Federation of Teachers.
In fact, he said, the state leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, of which Anderson’s local is a member, has been monitoring national teacher strike events and is weighing its own participation, he said.
“We’re having discussions about getting the General Assembly’s attention,” Harrison told the Anderson Community Schools board of trustees on Tuesday. “Yes, we’re monitoring, and yes, we are ready to lobby the special session that’s coming up.”
According to a 2017 National Education Association report, the average teacher salary nationwide is $58,353. However, according to the Indiana State Teachers Association, the average teacher salary in the state is $54,308.
In addition, a 2014-15 Rankings and Estimates report published by the National Education Association, said Indiana teachers earn 13 percent less, adjusted for inflation, than they did a decade ago. That has forced some teachers to work two or three jobs to keep their families afloat, Harrison said.
Madison County teacher salaries fall in the middle of the pack compared to salaries statewide.
In addition to living expenses, many teachers have accumulated college debt and have to pay out-of-pocket costs for professional development required under state law, Harrison said.
“That’s what we’re calling a professional wage. There are a lot of people who probably would love that and get some benefits, but again we’re talking professionals,” he said.
Harrison said the teacher strikes in the deep-red states have focused attention on teaching in every state, including Indiana.
“I think there’s been results. I think it’s brought serious attention to the profession,” he said.
Though most Madison County districts’ salaries have tended to increase over the past several years, some have seen decreases, often because of one-time bumps.
At $66,444, Frankton-Lapel Community School Corp. offers the top salary for the most educated and experienced teachers in the area.
“We definitely want to stay competitive to surrounding districts so we can recruit the best teachers,” he said. “Obviously, you get into some places that have a higher socio-economic base than we have, and they can pass referendums to pay higher teacher salaries. We’re in competition with those districts. It’s easy to lose to those districts that pay more.”
Those districts include Hamilton Southeastern, just south of Lapel, and Noblesville to the west. After the Indiana Legislature implemented a property tax cap, each district has taken advantage of a provision allowing districts to raise operations money through referendums.
Districts like these often find themselves returning to taxpayers hat in hand to request millions of dollars every seven years as the payback period comes to an end.
But not everyone thinks operations bonds are a sustainable way to raise money for teacher salaries.
For instance, Alexandria Community Schools Superintendent Melissa Brisco said operations bonds should be a last resort. She said the use of operations bonds widens the equality gap between the wealthiest and poorest districts.
“If districts have to rely on referenda to increase teacher pay, then the affluent districts will continue to find dollars for raises while those districts located in poverty areas will continue to struggle,” she said.
Brisco said teachers deserve a solid living wage but that needs to take place at the state level where legislators determine the funding formula. She said the per-student funding formula often does not benefit small rural districts like hers.
“Overall funding has gone down in both the General Fund and Capital Projects Fund. It’s not just bad, it’s unsustainable, even as districts become leaner and do more with much less. We receive less dollars per student today than we did in 2012,” she said.
Even in districts like hers where there has been a slight decline in student enrollment, the needs of the students have increased.
“The funding formula is supposed to account for that, but it isn’t enough. We are leaner than we’ve ever been, but to live within our means, we must continue to cut and there’s no more fat. We’re cutting into bone. That hurts our students that need the most support,” she said.