The Journal Gazette
Sunday, November 24, 2019 1:00 am

Teachers' rally exceeds expectations

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

It's around 5:30 a.m., and Sandra Vohs is looking over a list of names on a clipboard inside the Fort Wayne Education Association office on East Coliseum Boulevard. 

Outside, four Royal Excursion charter buses idle Tuesday as the teachers union president works to check in those who registered to travel from Fort Wayne to the Statehouse to rally for better working conditions. 

“We've got to figure out how to get everyone together down there,” said Vohs, as teachers and public education supporters lined up to secure seats on the buses. 

The Red for Ed Action Day rally drew thousands of educators from across Indiana, blanketing space inside and outside the state Capitol for one of the largest demonstrations ever held there. Organizers said 20,000 people registered, though it is not clear how many participated. 

Hundreds of teachers from northeast Indiana – including at least 500 from Fort Wayne Community Schools – joined the throng in Indianapolis, but getting there wasn't as simple as boarding a bus and heading south.

Teachers, their unions and school district administrators met and spoke for weeks before the demonstration, as the numbers of instructors who said they planned to attend grew rapidly and leaders of schools were forced to consider canceling classes.  

“No one anticipated how the event would explode into a demonstration of historic proportions, so, initially, the subject of closing school didn't even come up,” Vohs said Nov. 15, the day FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson announced classes would be canceled. 

About 650 teachers – more than a third of the district's 1,825-instructor workforce – told administrators they wouldn't be in school. There weren't enough substitutes to fill in, and Robinson decided there was no other way to cover classes.

Robinson said she supported teachers' efforts and worked with the union to allow them to attend, but initially hoped to keep schools open.

“However, this event and the number of teachers requesting to take the day off have grown to the point where I no longer feel we can safely educate our students on Tuesday, Nov. 19,” she wrote in a letter to parents. 

Planning for the rally began in late September or early October, when the Indiana State Teachers Association began discussing with unions around the state plans to gather at the Statehouse on the ceremonial first day of the legislative session. They wanted to fight rules, including tying teacher pay and school funding to students' scores on standardized tests. 

Teachers also decried a requirement they complete a 15-hour externship before their licenses are renewed.

Unions and schools first expected a small number of teachers to go. 

Andra Kosmoski, president of the East Allen Educators Association, said the goal was to encourage about a dozen of East Allen County Schools teachers to take personal days and attend the rally. 

“In October, I had exceeded my goal and had 15 volunteers on the list to attend the rally,” she said in an email last week. “It wasn't until the week of Nov. 4 that I realized the participation across the state had grown to be beyond anyone's expectations, school districts were closing, and EACS had approximately 50 teachers request the day (off).”

More than 140 attended, after EACS Superintendent Marilyn Hissong canceled classes. 

Southwest Allen County Schools and Northwest Allen County Schools did not cancel classes, but administrators expressed support for teachers. 

Vohs described a similar, hectic process and said she started talking to FWCS leaders in October. 

“We were expecting we'd get, like, 50 people,” Vohs said. “That's what we thought was going to happen.”

The number of FWCS teachers requesting days off quickly rose from dozens to hundreds in the days before the rally. That led Vohs to charter the buses, which shuttled more than 150 local educators – each of whom paid $20 to cover the expense – to the state Capitol. 

Inside the vehicles, there were feelings of excitement among red-clad passengers. Many carried signs – “Teachers just want to have funds,” was one. 

They chanted “Red for Ed” as a television reporter began a live shot around 6:30 a.m. 

Near the front of Bus No. 3, Northrop High School biology teacher Jenna Thiele said teacher salaries, which lag behind many other states, are just one reason for the rally.

“It's about the standardized tests,” she said. “It's about the students.”

Claudia Casiano, a retired banker, sat a few rows behind Thiele and said she has two daughters-in-law who are teachers. 

“I'm here for them,” Casiano said, pouring coffee for herself and others. “I'm sick of our educators not being paid what they're worth.”

The average salary for teachers in Indiana is about $51,000, according to the National Education Association. The national average is about $60,500. 

Salaries in Allen County range from about $40,000 to $74,500.

Vicky Lomont, a former FWCS teacher who is now an EACS instructor, sat not far from Thiele. Lomont said she is frustrated with lawmakers, who for years have supported voucher systems while neglecting traditional public schools. 

“I would like to see my representative listen to me, rather than his party,” Lomont said. 

At the rally, Kathleen Cagle, a math teacher at New Tech Academy at Wayne High School, said testing has become an omnipresent force in schools. 

“Every year, we're asked to do more and more and more, and none of it is to help the students,” she said. 

NACS teacher Kristen Bowland arrived at the Capitol building around 8:30 a.m. Nov. 19. 

“We felt like we were part of history,” she said. “It's worth the fight. I'm doing it for our kids.”

Back on the buses and headed back to Fort Wayne, teachers were quieter but not subdued. They talked about the day's events and scrolled through social media and news coverage of the rally on their phones. 

On Thursday, Vohs was going through receipts and tidying up her office. She planned to update the union website but had not been able to get to it. 

She echoed teachers' statements that the rally was a success, but only a first step. The union will again reach out to lawmakers and continue to push for changes to state education policies. 

“The whole experience, there was nothing negative,” Vohs said.

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