inside success

Behind the scenes, Success Academy’s first high school spent last year in chaos. Can Eva Moskowitz turn it around?

On a muggy morning in August, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz stood before a group of parents inside the network’s first high school, trying to regain their trust.

Parents were angry that students were being told they could be held back a grade if they missed four assignments. They were concerned about teachers going too far to enforce the dress code. And they were fearful about an exodus of teachers — as well as an email that said if parents missed a June meeting, Success would “assume your scholar is withdrawing.”

Moskowitz, a fixture in New York City politics who talks about her network of 47 schools with an almost religious fervor, acknowledges that she never planned to run high schools. But Success did open one in 2014 and a second several years later. It hasn’t gone smoothly.

“I knew that I was putting it together with bubble gum and Scotch tape,” Moskowitz told the parents, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Chalkbeat. Of the Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts in Manhattan, she added, “We’ve been at this for 13 years, and I have never seen a school in our network that has been this disorganized.”

Success Academy, New York City’s largest network of charter schools, graduated its first high school students in June to much fanfare. But behind the scenes, according to nearly two dozen parents, students, and current and former school officials, its first high school spent last year in crisis.

Worried about students’ grades and behavior, Moskowitz sidelined the school’s principal and pushed staff to change discipline rules and more strictly enforce the dress code. Twenty-eight out of about 300 students were sent back to an earlier grade, some moving back to eighth grade after starting high school.

The moves sparked a student sit-in, a protest, and eventually an exodus of staff, including the principal. Late this summer, parent frustrations reached a boiling point, prompting Moskowitz to hold two meetings to address their concerns.

Discontent at the high school, where students return to school Monday, is a significant problem for the network. Success doesn’t admit students after fourth grade, and therefore depends on convincing its elementary and middle-school students to stick around. And despite the issues at Success’ first high school, Moskowitz told Chalkbeat in an interview last week that she plans to open as many as nine more high schools in the next decade. (Its first two high schools operated mostly separately last year, but are now operating as one.)

That’s why Moskowitz ended up in a school auditorium in midtown Manhattan over the summer, promising parents that things would get better — while insisting that the school’s methods were necessary to ensure their children’s success in college.

“I could have said, look, I’m going to throw in the towel,” Moskowitz told them, adding, “I didn’t abandon you. I’m here.”

*****

Success Academy is famous for rules.

That was true when the network launched with a kindergarten and first grade in 2006 and remains true now, as Success serves about 17,000 students — mostly students of color.

The schools deploy an at-times controversial “no excuses” approach, with strict discipline and high academic standards. As some other charter schools backed away from out-of-school suspensions in the last few years, Moskowitz has defended them with vigor.

Her schools are also known for their academic rigor, intense test prep, and sky-high state test scores. Their elementary and middle schools regularly blow past city averages on state tests and even beat much wealthier districts like Scarsdale and Chappaqua.

But how should Success’ trademark strictness be adapted for students who are older, more independent, perhaps less inclined to accept big consequences for small infractions? That question has dogged other no-excuses high schools, and Success appears to be struggling to find answers.

For the last three years, the task of figuring that out fell to Andy Malone, a well-liked former Success middle school principal who took over the high school in 2015. (The school’s first principal lasted one year.)

“That is really hard to get right,” Malone told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “You don’t want to Tiger Mom them to the point where they are unhappy or counterproductive. But you don’t want to be so laissez-faire that they’re not producing their best and then live to regret it.”

Malone’s strategy was to offer more freedom than was typical in the network’s lower grades. Some Advanced Placement classes pushed students to complete research papers, not focus purely on test preparation, former teachers said. Students recalled he allowed them to wear colorful headscarves featuring African prints, even if they weren’t technically in line with the network’s dress code.

But network leaders, including Moskowitz, did not completely buy in to Malone’s approach.

With Malone, Moskowitz told Chalkbeat, “Everything was relationship based — he’s charismatic, he’s devoted. That’s different from systems and routines and policies and procedures.”

Moskowitz began spending more time in the high school, and teachers said she worried about students’ grade point averages being too low and dress code violations becoming too common just as the school was trying to shepherd its first students into college.

Moskowitz’s argument, which she often makes to parents, boils down to this: Students not turning in homework means they lack the study skills they will need to succeed in college. Uncompleted assignments also have the effect of lowering students’ GPAs, hurting their chances of getting into a selective college in the first place. America rewards college degrees, and most of Success’ students are already starting from behind compared to their wealthier peers. It’s the school’s job to make sure they don’t fall off track.

“The promises that we made to these students and their families — we’re going to prepare you for college … We knew these work habits weren’t going to get them there,” said Anurupa Ganguly, the school’s director of math and engineering.

Another concern, according to a former Success official who spoke on condition of anonymity, was that the network wanted to cement policies that it could replicate in its future high schools, and the first high school didn’t look like the example Moskowitz wanted it to be.

So halfway through the year, things changed.

Small infractions suddenly came with a bigger cost. In the month before the start of the second semester, staffers were told that students should be held back a grade if they missed four assignments or racked up four unexcused absences or tardies, according to internal documents obtained by Chalkbeat.

“We cannot in good faith move you closer to college if you are not demonstrating foundational college-ready habits and mindsets,” school officials told students in a January email.

The holdover policy had shifted at least three times by February, according to internal documents and letters sent to students. Staff members began more strictly enforcing the dress code, too, and headscarves that did not reflect the school colors were banned.  

A Success official said that it is not unusual for students to be held back across the network in the middle of the school year if they are struggling. Spokeswoman Anne Michaud said the changes at the high school were intended to send a “strong message” in response to a high rate of absences and missing assignments, and the school gave students a grace period to adjust to the dress code enforcement.

“It was well-intentioned,” said Natasha Venner, a high school history teacher who resigned at the end of last year. Moskowitz “wants it to work so hard that she’s using punitive measures.”

But the mid-year changes went over poorly with some students. On January 26, dozens of students staged a sit-in inside a school common space, where some confronted Moskowitz directly.

“What if I have all As? Are you going to hold me back because I’m wearing the wrong shoes?” a student asked, according to a video of the sit-in reviewed by Chalkbeat.

“I appreciate the strength of your feeling and I think you should propose alternatives,” Moskowitz responded. The issue, she told the students, was their work habits.

“It may feel restrained or restrictive,” she said. But in college, “No one is going to be checking and supporting you.”

But some students felt changes like the headscarf crackdown were not supportive, and had nothing to do with college readiness.

“It is a part of our culture to wear headwraps and it helps us take care of our natural hair, which is like kinky and curly and not the same as most of our teachers and most of the people in the network,” said Azira King, who was a freshman at the school last year.

To Reanna Phillips, a junior at the school last year, the discipline crackdown felt like the school was “taking away part of our identity.” She helped organize a student protest, and school officials eased up on some details of their dress code and holdover policies.

This summer, though, Phillips found herself in violation. Although she turned in many of her summer homework assignments, she didn’t complete the 10 SAT prep lessons required each week of rising seniors. She had already taken the test twice and earned a 1330 out of 1600 — a score she was proud of.

But after missing the deadline for submitting the assignments, Success informed her that she would have to repeat 11th grade. The school later withdrew the threat. (Brooke Rosenkrantz, the new principal who told Phillips’ mother that her daughter would be held back, defended the decision in an interview. “We’re unapologetic about it: you have to do your homework in order to matriculate,” she said.)

All of the upheaval contributed to a mass exodus of staff. Just 18 of the 67 faculty and staff employed by the Manhattan high school were returning this fall, though officials said some of the movement is due to curriculum changes and 13 of those leaving will work elsewhere at Success. Malone resigned as principal at the end of the year and was replaced by Rosenkrantz, another Success veteran.

“There was an extraordinary level of chaos and inconsistency,” said Lynn Strong, an English teacher who quit at the end of the school year. “Kids didn’t know what was expected of them.”

*****

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz (left) and Brooke Rosenkrantz (right) chat with a student.

Some parents also spent the second half of the year worried that school officials had become too aggressive.

In May, the school told parents they had to attend a meeting scheduled on June 5 or else the network would assume their child was leaving the school. Former staffers say it was the first time such meetings had been required at the high school, and Keisa Johnson, whose daughter was a junior at the school last year, interpreted it as a threat.

“A lot of parents that I spoke to literally had to take the day off just to make the meeting,” she said.

A Success spokeswoman said meetings are held every year in an effort to be transparent about new requirements, and that any parents who contacted the school about a conflict were accommodated.

But it struck Johnson, and several other parents, as yet another example of school officials clamping down too hard. Minutes from a parent council meeting in May include worries that teachers were spending time “searching for infractions” by “lifting shirts to see if a child has a belt on or lifting pants legs to view sock colors.” Michaud, the Success spokeswoman, said faculty were told not to “worry about what they could not see.”

According to minutes from the meeting, “Scholars are under a lot of stress and a lot of scholars are generally unhappy with their current high school experience.”

The charter network has sent stern signals to parents in other ways. After one of the recent meetings to discuss their concerns, Success spokeswoman Ann Powell warned parents against talking to the press.

Meanwhile, a separate Success employee trailed a reporter outside the school. At one point, the employee also followed a parent, Amanda Santiago, for several blocks as she spoke with a reporter.

“You need to stop following me,” Santiago said after the Success employee refused multiple requests from Santiago to stop listening. After a minute or two of arguing with Santiago, she relented and walked away.

But several other parents, speaking after the meeting with Moskowitz, acknowledged the challenges but said they stand by the network. Success has since promised to send parents more explicit policies about when students can be held back and what students must do to graduate.

“They are not innocent; they’ve made their mistakes,” said Jason Peralta, who has two children at the school. “But if I were to take a 30,000-foot view on these things, and I would compare my choice versus sending my kid where he would have to go to, which is a Bronx public school” — the choice is obvious, he said.

“The average person in there has been with Eva for a long time,” Peralta added. “No one’s in there with pitchforks. It’s more like, we are at a point where we need to be heard and we need her to step up for us.”

*****

Late last week, Success Academy officials invited parents and students to mingle with their new teachers ahead of the first day of school.

Junior Savion Ledna was there with his mother. At the end of last year, he said he could “sense the tension” in the school building, especially over the discipline policy changes.

“Maybe we can move on from that this year,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit more optimistic right now.”

A few hours earlier, Moskowitz checked in on teachers readying their classrooms. She admired a science room that had just been retrofitted with new electrical wiring at each table, a headache that involved gutting the room. And she took in a new ballet studio with fresh hardwood floors. Students will be able to choose ballet as one of their three electives, up from two choices last year.

School officials have worked hard in recent months to avoid a repeat of last school year, she said. The school has created a team devoted to overseeing instruction, and Moskowitz hired a former consultant with experience in “internal strategic management” to oversee the school’s new principal as well as its operations team. The school also launched a new data system that officials say will allow better communication with parents about how their kids are performing.   

Moskowitz also pointed to Rosenkrantz, the school’s new principal and a longtime Success employee. Rosenkrantz has a big task ahead of her, especially as the school adds more than 300 students this year. Rosenkrantz told Chalkbeat she’s confident she can turn the school’s culture around.

What would she say to parents and students still shaken from last year?

“I’m sorry,” Rosenkrantz said. “And I’m here to make it better and I hope you see it’s already better.”

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. Denver Classroom Teachers Association officials also plan to meet with Polis Wednesday, according to union Deputy Executive Director Corey Kern.

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, who is appointed by the governor, can decide that intervention is in the public interest. That would push back the date that teachers could legally strike, potentially by as much as 180 days.

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.

Union officials did not release the number of teachers who voted on the strike. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have any purview. Kern said the vote was conducted electronically by a third party.

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.”