Future of Schools

Six hours, eight buses: The extreme sacrifice Detroit parents make to access better schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Dawn Wilson stands outside one of the many neighborhood schools in Detroit that has been shut down.

For thousands of Detroit families, the daily trek begins in darkness, before dawn.

Myesha Williams, a mother of eight on Detroit’s west side, sets out at 7 a.m. to deliver her three school-aged sons to three different schools on opposite ends of the city – and she considers herself lucky. She has a car and a large family that can help share the driving.

Total daily journey: Up to 93.5 miles, 3 hours.

Monique Johnson starts her trek even earlier, just after 6 a.m. when she and son Shownn, 13, an eighth-grader, catch a ride to a bus stop eight blocks from their home in the city’s Brightmoor neighborhood. There are closer stops, Johnson said, but they’re pitch black at that hour — and dangerous.

They wait for the bus in the glow of a nearby gas station, huddling together under blankets on frigid winter mornings. The No. 43 bus comes around 6:20 a.m., Johnson said.

Shownn is exhausted at that hour and sometimes sleeps on his mother’s shoulder during the 25- to 40-minute ride along Schoolcraft Road toward Woodward Avenue. The bus drops the pair at the corner of Woodward and Manchester in Highland Park. Mother and son typically wait 20 minutes for their next bus, the No. 53, while peering warily through the dim light cast by the Walgreens across the street.

Monique Johnson and son Shownn, 13, set out so early for school, he sometimes sleeps on the bus. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)
Monique Johnson and son Shownn, 13, set out so early for school, he sometimes sleeps on the bus. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)

“It’s pretty dark on that side of the street,” Johnson said. Shownn knows to stay alert. “I teach him to pay attention to his surroundings so he’ll be able to react if he feels something is not right.”

Mother and son typically arrive at University Prep Science & Math Middle School, a well regarded charter school in the Michigan Science Center, around 7:30 a.m. and Johnson waits with her son until his classes begin at 7:50. She then makes her way back home — another No. 53, another No. 43 – until reaching Brightmoor around 9:30 a.m. That’s about three and a half hours before she has to leave again on another four buses to return to Shownn’s school and bring him home.

Total daily journey: 52 miles, 5-6 hours.

Like many big cities, Detroit has shuttered scores of traditional neighborhood schools in favor of charter schools and public school magnet programs. Detroit kids can also attend schools in suburban districts.

"If he’s passionate about it, then I’m going to do whatever it takes in rain, sleet, snow, bus and bike"

But many of the city’s new options do not provide transportation, and new schools are often far from where kids live – a serious challenge in a city where a quarter of families have no access to a car and where the public transit system is woefully insufficient.

That means some families, like Williams’ and Johnson’s, make extreme sacrifices to access quality schools. Work gets neglected; personal obligations go unmet; children miss sleep and lose ground in class by too often showing up late.

Other families, those without cars or the time and resources to make long commutes to school, are stuck with the few schools left in their neighborhoods. And the nearby option is often a school with a long track record of poor performance: Just 10 Detroit schools posted test scores high enough to rank above average on the state’s last top-to bottom ranking in 2014 — six selective public schools and four charter schools.

And with the families who can leave choosing to do so, many local schools have lost the engaged parents who once led the PTA. They’ve lost connections to community leaders who are less likely to advocate for a school their children do not attend. And their neighborhoods have lost the community anchors that once brought them together.

Myesha Williams heads out before dawn to drive son Elijah, 17, to school. Her three sons attend three different Detroit schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Myesha Williams heads out before dawn to drive son Elijah, 17, to school. Her three sons attend three different Detroit schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

“One of the outcomes of schools closing and kids having to go farther and farther away from home is it’s much more difficult for the school to create bonds with families that would serve to support school improvements,” said Sarah Lenhoff, an education professor at Wayne State University. “The neighborhood around the school may not feel as strong a connection to it if none of their children are going to that school.”

School choice

The schools that once gathered the families of Johnson’s neighborhood, Brightmoor, are largely gone now – Vetal, Burt, Harding, Hubert, Houghten, Redford High.

It’s the same in Williams’ neighborhood on the city’s near west side. Robeson burned down. Hancock was shuttered. Longfellow became Detroit City High School, then closed its doors.

They were among 195 Detroit public schools that closed between 2000 and 2015 as the district’s enrollment fell from 162,693 students to 47,959. More than 100 new public and charter schools opened during the same time period, but the new schools weren’t placed around the city based on neighborhood need.

Any college or university in Michigan can authorize a charter school and charter schools can open anywhere they find an appropriate building. So schools open where real estate is available, there is a perception of safety, and teachers want to work.

The result is a mismatch between where students live and where schools are located.

The Vetal school is one of many in Dawn Wilson’s Brightmoor neighborhood that have been shuttered. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
The Vetal school is one of many in Dawn Wilson’s Brightmoor neighborhood that have been shuttered. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

A calculation by Data Driven Detroit and the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit shows that Detroit’s affluent downtown and midtown neighborhoods have 17,039 more school seats than children who need them.

The struggling neighborhoods in northeast Detroit, in contrast, have 2,130 more children than seats.

Williams’ neighborhood, around the center of the city, has 1,694 more children than seats.

The prominent city leaders behind the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren last year flagged this imbalance in a report that issued a series of recommendations for turning around the city’s schools.

"It would be a blessing if you could get a quality education in your own community where you don’t have to get up extra early and travel."

The coalition called for the creation of a Detroit Education Commission that would have oversight authority over public and charter schools to better distribute school options around the city. The idea is now the subject of heated debate in Lansing where the Senate version of a $715 million rescue and reform plan for Detroit Public Schools would create the education commission. The idea is opposed by charter school leaders who fear the commission would favor public schools over charters and are lobbying to keep the DEC out of the final legislation.

Even if the DEC is created, however, it would primarily have control over future schools — not current ones — so it would likely take years for it to have an impact on neighborhoods that need quality schools.

In Johnson’s Brightmoor neighborhood, there are technically enough school seats, but none of the nearby options meet Johnson’s standards for Shownn, she said.

Of the five public and charter schools in Brightmoor that were listed on the state’s most recent top-to-bottom rankings in 2014, four had test scores that placed them in the bottom 6 percent of Michigan schools. The only Brightmoor school not at the very bottom was a charter high school that Shownn is still too young to attend.

So when Shownn came home from a field trip to the Science Center and told Johnson there was a school he wanted to go to inside the center, she agreed to bring him there on the bus every day. His charter school was ranked in the 59th percentile on the state ranking.

The schedule has taken a toll on Johnson and her family, she said. With so much of her day devoted to transporting Shownn to and from school, it took her years longer than it should have to graduate with a journalism degree last year from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Now, as she looks for work that will pay enough to buy her a car, the schedule interferes with her job search, too.

Hours spent taking her son Shownn to school meant it took years longer than it shoud have for Monique Johnson to graduate last year from the University of Michigan- Dearborn. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)
Hours spent taking her son Shownn to school meant it took years longer than it shoud have for Monique Johnson to graduate last year from the University of Michigan- Dearborn. (Photo courtesy of Monique Johnson)

But this was the best way to help Shownn achieve his goal of going to college, Johnson said. “I have to do this to make his dreams happen. If he’s passionate about it, then I’m going to do whatever it takes in rain, sleet, snow, bus and bike. I’m going to make it happen.”

Williams said she initially sent her son Elijah, now a 17-year-old sophomore, to the nearby high school, Central Collegiate Academy. It’s close enough that Elijah could walk home. But he struggled there.

“I was getting in trouble,” Elijah said. “The environment at Central is not good.”

So when his basketball coach at Central got a job at the Cornerstone Health and Technology charter school in northwest Detroit, Elijah followed him.

Williams initially enrolled 14-year-old Edmond at the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit because she worked there and could bring him with her when she went to work. She enrolled another son in Southwest Detroit’s WAY Academy because it was close to Phoenix and would let 15-year-old Emmanuel, who has fallen behind academically, quickly make up his lost credits by taking online classes.

Myesha Williams’ 14 year-old son, Edmond, one of three sons who goes to three different schools, heads to the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Myesha Williams’ 14 year-old son, Edmond, one of three sons who goes to three different schools, heads to the Phoenix Multicultural Academy in Southwest Detroit. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

But when she lost her job at Phoenix, which has been struggling and might close this year, the drive to Southwest Detroit became much more of a challenge. Now, if her husband can’t take Elijah to Cornerstone in northwest Detroit, she makes a half-hour trip to drop Elijah at that school and then comes back for Edmond. It takes 50 minutes to make the round-trip drive to drop Edmond at Phoenix, then another 50 minutes a few hours later to take Emmanuel to his school, which starts at noon.

Williams’ daughter-in-law and other family members often help with the driving, but someone in the family has to drive back to Southwest Detroit in the afternoon to pick up Emmanuel at 3 p.m., then sit in the car for over an hour, waiting for Edmond to get out of school at 4:15 p.m.

“It would be a blessing if you could get a quality education in your own community where you don’t have to get up extra early and travel,” Williams said. “But I’ve been blessed with my car … I just really thank God for me and my husband because we just had to go above and beyond for the kids.”

“A sin and a shame”

Dawn Wilson, Johnson’s neighbor in Brightmoor, knows what it’s like to go to a nearby school. Her daughters attended a small pay-what-you-can religious school around the corner from her home when they were younger.

“I loved it. It was like family,” said Wilson, a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s schools. “We would walk there and the teachers lived in the neighborhood. There were a lot of community events and everyone would come.”

Dawn Wilson is a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s now-vacant schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)
Dawn Wilson is a professional clown who once performed at many of her neighborhood’s now-vacant schools. (Photo by: Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat Detroit)

The closure of that school kicked off a decade of bouncing her five children around to a motley mix of public, charter, and parochial schools that, one by one, disappointed Wilson and her kids. One school was too violent, Wilson said. Another had five principals in four years. One charter school changed management companies in the middle of the school year.

Every year, she drives a different route, taking kids to different schools, while watching as schools in her own neighborhood have emptied out and become vacant and derelict.

“Look at this! This is a sin and shame,” Wilson said as she gave a reporter a tour of her neighborhood’s abandoned schools.

Hubert has been open to trespassers and scrappers. At Houghten, which the city began to demolish this week, a roof collapse makes the building look like it has been bombed.

“If you ever want to break a community, just start by breaking down the school system and eventually you’re just going to have deserts and graveyards,” said Arlyssa Heard, the policy director 482Forward, a parent advocacy organization.

“If you have a good school in a community, people will start moving into that community and goods and services flow to where the people are,” Heard said. “When you have kids in a neighborhood, people are more apt to have a neighborhood watch. Police respond better. People can fight for playgrounds and safe spaces … But when you eliminate schools, tear them down, rip them out of neighborhoods and shut them down without even consulting the neighborhood, then you end up with these [school] deserts and you have parents who can’t afford to move or uproot their families. You have them driving all over town trying to take five kids to five different places. It’s completely insane.”

That has left the institutions that serve the neighborhood’s children scrambling to hunt them down.

Cherie Bandrowski has operated a tutoring and mentoring program for kids in Brightmoor since 1986.

The Wellspring youth development center she runs with her husband Dan is across the street from the broken and vandalized building that used to be Houghten school.

“Kids would come across the street to our program,” Bandrowski said. “The elementary school kids came from there, the high school kids came from Redford High … Now they’re all over the place — charter schools, open districts, DPS.”

Instead of serving kids from the neighborhood, Wellspring now sends a bus to pick up students from Cody High School, six miles away. Other students get a ride from their parents — at least on days when the family car is in working order.

“It’s not community,” Bandrowski said. “Back in the day, we would know the whole family and we knew that so-and-so’s parents were crack users … Today, we still know the families but there isn’t quite that intimacy anymore.”

A new path

Detroit schools have intensive needs. The city’s students have some of the lowest test scores in the nation and the district has a long-term debt that, by some estimates, tops $3.5 billion. Both the House and Senate in Lansing seem poised to pass some kind of rescue plan to at least address DPS debt.

Whether the Detroit Education Commission is included in the legislation will be determined over the next few weeks as lawmakers return from spring recess and resume negotiations. The DPS legislation passed by the Senate last month would give the city’s mayor the power to appoint the seven members of the DEC. They would be charged with creating an annual school needs assessment based on community input and data. The DEC would then have the power to steer new schools to neighborhoods that need them most.

“It’s not going to fix everything,” said Heard, who was a member of the coalition that recommended the DEC. “But the DEC will be able to at least bring some level of sanity to what we have now. What we have now is completely unacceptable.”

Charter school supporters don’t dispute that the current situation is difficult for many families, but they say giving the mayor power over charter schools would stifle school choice. They have instead advocated for a system of incentives to lure charter schools to the neighborhoods that most need new schools.

“There are things that can be done to make parent access to choice easier, and those things should be done,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the pro-charter Great Lakes Education Project. “We just want them all to be opt-in and voluntary” for schools.

It’s true that many charter schools have clustered in neighborhoods like downtown and midtown, he said, but he asserted that those schools are popular with parents who work in the city center and drop off their children on the way to their jobs.

“It is also commonly believed that that area of the city is a safer area in which to locate a school than some other areas of the city,” Naeyaert said. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to put a school where it can’t get enrollment.”

School choice options are so popular with parents that less than 40 percent of the city’s 119,000 school-aged children are enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools. The average Detroit student commutes 3.4 miles each way to school but for some parents, the journey is much longer.

“Everything I do is to make things better for him,” Johnson said of her son. “I told him ‘We’re going through these extra steps and it’s a lot to get you to school, but if this is going to help better prepare you, not only for high school and for college, but for life, then it’s what we’re going to do.’”

Next year, for high school, Johnson has a highly ranked charter school in Dearborn in mind for Shownn. It’s a 15-minute car ride but about an hour away on the bus.

“My plan is that I’ll have a car before he gets to high school,” Johnson said. “But even if I don’t, we’ll catch the bus if we have to. He did it for three years in middle school. He’s a trooper.”

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. 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.

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. 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.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to continue to work on finding the common ground,” Cordova said.

State labor officials typically only intervene if both sides want help. However, the head of the department can decide that intervention is in the public interest. That would push back the date that teachers could legally strike.

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.

Cordova is in her third week on the job as superintendent. She has reminded the public repeatedly that she started her career as a 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 has argued that investing so much money in bonuses robbed teachers of base salary increases they would likely have gotten under a traditional salary schedule. But giving up the bonuses would mean forfeiting the $33 million earmarked for that purpose.

During negotiations, the union proposed reducing the size of the bonuses and using that money to beef up base salaries. The union proposal would have cost the district nearly $30 million more than what it currently spends 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 instance, the district’s offer included a $2,500 incentive for teachers who teach at schools serving a high proportion of students from low-income families.

District officials said that incentive is key to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers at high-poverty schools, where teacher turnover can be high.

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.”