Fort Wayne Community Schools is bracing for Nov. 19, when nearly a third of the district's 1,825 teachers will not be at work.
Almost 600 educators have said they won't be leading classrooms next Tuesday, when thousands of teachers are expected at a Red for Ed Action Day rally at the Statehouse to lobby for better pay and working conditions.
FWCS leaders have said schools will remain open, despite the teacher exodus. That's as dozens of districts around the state, including Huntington County Community School Corp., have announced closures, and a small group supporting teachers on Monday urged FWCS to cancel classes amid staffing concerns with so many instructors gone.
Noah Smith, a father of two FWCS students, helps run a Facebook group about schools and education issues. He is concerned about whether enough substitute teachers can be found to fill vacancies next week. He joined about 20 people in the snow outside Croninger Elementary School on Trier Road to support teachers.
“It was our hope Fort Wayne Community Schools would take the lead and close,” Smith said. “We still have that hope and desire.”
For now, though, there are no plans for the district – the state's largest, with about 30,000 students – to suspend classes.
Superintendent Wendy Robinson sent a letter last week to teachers, supporting their efforts. The letter asked teachers to alert administrators about whether they would be absent and said it is likely there will not be enough substitutes.
“Knowing how many absences to expect will allow us to make contingency plans to meet the needs of students,” Robinson wrote.
Those contingencies could mean covering classes with staff from other areas of the district, including the central office. In some cases, one teacher might cover two classes, officials said.
Teachers who agree to double up can earn extra money, according to a recently ratified teacher contract.
Krista Stockman, district spokeswoman, said the need for substitute teachers next week will far outpace typical school days. About 100 fill-in instructors are needed on an average day, she said, though the number can sometimes rise to about 200.
“We struggle to find enough subs on a normal day,” Stockman said. “We won't have enough subs to cover everything (next week).”
While teachers were asked to declare by Monday afternoon whether they will be in school Nov. 19, the number of absent educators still could rise because they were not required to let administrators know. Asked whether a ballooning number of absences might force FWCS officials to reconsider closing, Stockman said she wasn't sure.
“At this point, we're still planning to be open,” she said.
Sandra Vohs, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association, which represents FWCS teachers, said 75 school districts around the state will close. The union will bus 200 teachers from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis and is coordinating carpools, she said.
“The momentum for this event continues to grow, so I expect we are currently underestimating participation,” Vohs said in an email.
Indianapolis Public Schools, the state's second-largest district, announced last week it will close the day of the rally.
Huntington County Community School Corp. announced Monday it will close after 115 teachers requested time off to attend the rally.
“The root cause for the Red for Ed Action Day is inadequate public education funding from state elected leaders,” a news release from the district said. “The unfortunate result is the need for Indiana educators to gather in Indianapolis to remind elected leaders of the (legislature's) recent public education funding failures.”
The union representing Huntington County teachers will hire at least one motor coach to transport teachers to the rally, more if necessary.
Jennifer Matthias, who helped organize the Fort Wayne gathering Monday outside Croninger Elementary School, urged more local teachers to take Nov. 19 off in solidarity with other educators.
“Our goal is to close Fort Wayne Community Schools and have all teachers and supporters, including students, to attend the Red for Ed Day in Indianapolis,” she said in a statement. “Teachers should seize this moment in time.”