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. (Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat)
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.”
LaMeca Perkins-Knight is one of two Indianapolis Public Schools teachers leading a campaign to replace the local teachers union. (Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat)
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.”