Emotions ran high at times during an Indiana State Teachers Association town hall meeting Saturday in Fort Wayne.
Audience members peppered state lawmakers with questions, many showing frustration over what they described as a lack of resources for teachers and students, particularly students with special needs.
It was beneficial for lawmakers to hear the frustration, said Andra Kosmoski, president of the East Allen Educators Association.
“It gets tense, I understand that. We do have to work together, but I want them to know this is where we're coming from when you make all of these regulations,” she said.
When the lawmakers return to Indianapolis, Kosmoski said, she hopes they will reach out and ask about the impact of legislation on teachers, schools and districts.
“If they ask us those questions before they vote, then we would have more respect,” she said.
A large crowd of teachers, administrators, parents and advocates participated in the 21/2-hour question-and-answer session at the teachers association's Fort Wayne office.
Lawmakers present Saturday were Reps. Martin Carbaugh, R-Fort Wayne; Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne; Chris Judy, R-Fort Wayne; Dave Heine, R-New Haven; Dave Abbott, R-Rome City; and Ben Smaltz, R-Auburn; and Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne.
Of particular importance were questions relating to a 15-hour externship requirement for teacher license renewal; accountability standards for schools that accept vouchers; state funding per student; and cost-of-living adjustments for the teacher retirement pension.
Easing state restrictions on teachers unions' collective bargaining rights was also broached during the town hall. The regulations, enforced through the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board, are so complicated, the board has contradicted itself on the issue, said Sandra Vohs, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association.
“The last time our contract came back from EERB, they found a violation, but they had violated their own rubric. It's so complicated, they violated their own rubric in their comments,” she said. “You jump through ridiculous hoops.”
Teachers described working to the point of exhaustion, spending money from their own pockets to supplement classroom activities and struggling to help kids with no funding to help. Others talked about discouraging their own family members from pursuing a career as an educator.
“I feel disenfranchised,” one elementary school teacher said, adding that when his parents and grandparents were teachers, there was more support for public schools.
Although pay and benefits were a concern, none of the teachers said they believed it was the biggest issue facing northeast Indiana schools.
The lawmakers did not have or pretend to have solid answers for every concern raised. Few committed to voting for any particular measure or proposal, but all said they were listening to the crowd and would take the issues back to Indianapolis.
Ryan Henly, president of the Southwest Allen County Teachers Association, said it was good to hear about some of the steps that lawmakers are already taking on some of the educators' requests, like decoupling teacher performance from standardized test scores.
“They say they're doing a lot of listening, and I believe they are genuinely,” Henly said. “What we want to see now is that next step of the action. What bills are they going to vote for? Are they going to do these things they're listening for, are they going to author bills themselves or look into these situations?”
Henly said the turnout was wonderful and shows lawmakers they are being watched and listened to. It also conveyed the frustrations many educators and parents have, he added.
“I think it's very powerful to hear that, that it's not just teachers saying it because they see it every day,” Henly said. “Parents are seeing this, too, and it's their public schools that their kids are sent to and entrusted to us. We just want the best for them.”
Sometimes, emotional testimony tells the story more effectively than other means, Vohs said. For years, teachers have felt like those in power weren't listening, she added, which may have contributed to the anger and frustration expressed Saturday.
“I think the more people feel like they are showing up and listening to us and they are trying to answer our questions and ask our opinions, that's going to help across the board,” she said.