Bridging the Gap
Teachers, students and community members reflect on the possible effects of the referendum to increase teachers’ salaries if it is passed
It all came down to red scarves and handwritten posters on a cold November day. It came down to a parade of teachers drumming on red buckets and marching around the Indiana statehouse. It came down to a sea of teachers in red chanting for change.
On Nov. 19, almost 20,000 people attended the “Red for Ed” rally, organized by the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) to increase teacher pay, repeal a requirement for teachers to complete an externship to renew their teaching license, and to make teacher assessments immune from ILEARN test scores. The protestors hoped to show their support of public education and demand change in the public education system. However, it became clear that no help would come from the state when the legislators set the state budget for the year, so BCSC took matters into its own hands to incite change at a local level by proposing a referendum. The rally was a tipping point that led the school corporation to take action. Special Education teacher, Amy London, who is on the board of ISTA and is president of the Columbus Educators Association (CEA) took part in organizing and planning the rally and supports passing the referendum.
“We had gone and lobbied. We had talked to legislators. We had written letters. We had made phone calls. We had sent emails. We had done all kinds of things to let our teacher voice be heard as to what needs to happen in education,” London said. “The next step was to come together as a group and show them collectively [at the rally].”
As a teacher, London has experienced the demands of the job and doesn’t believe the salary matches the work teachers put in.
“The scope of what a teacher does now is beyond just curriculum. We wear many hats from social emotional learning to testing we have to be accountable for now to a lot of paperwork to many initiatives that state has put forth that they have asked us to do,” London said. “That takes a lot more time than the 7.5 hours that teachers are paid for.”
With her first year teaching here and her experience teaching at different schools, choir director Jennifer Gafron is also aware of the challenges of the career.
“It is such a taxing job both emotionally and physically. You’re on your feet all day. you’re working with kids who have broken homes lives,” Gafron said. “There’s a lot going on. I always like to say every day is an adventure.”
Like other teachers, Gafron said she decided to go into this career because of her passion for teaching and her love of kids. Although she did not choose this profession for money, she believes that low salaries may prevent people from deciding to become a teacher in the future.
“At the end of the day, money is money, and if you can’t afford to pay your bills, you have to find another job or you have to cut back and find another job,” Gafron said.
According to Forbes, Indiana ranks 51st out of all the states and Washington D.C. for salary growth. Business teacher Scott Seavers sees this as a disincentive for students pursuing a career in education, especially in Indiana.
“Money is not a motivator for teachers. However, it is a demotivator if they don’t get paid a fair and competitive wage,” Seavers said. “Teachers have to pay bills, fund their children’s college plans and save for retirement just like everyone else. Teachers just want to be paid fairly to make a livable wage that at least keeps up with inflation.”
Sale and income tax from the state and property taxes go towards education funding in Indiana. Recently, as inflation and the cost of living has increased, but tax rates stayed the same, teachers’ salaries have not been able to keep up.
“BCSC has not had a tax increase that goes into the money for education in a long time. We have over the last ten years maintained about the same amount [of taxes]. The amount of money that [teachers] get is still the same,” London said. “The cost of living has gone up in our community but teacher’s salaries have not. In fact, after people have paid for insurance, their salaries have gone down because the cost of insurance is astronomical.”
In addition to less state funding, since the voucher program was introduced in 2011, a portion of the money given to public schools is now also going towards charter schools and private schools, according to principal David Clark. The state gives about $4,600 per student to public schools, according to indianapublicmedia.org. However, if a student decides to attend a charter or private school instead of a public school, the money per child allocated to the public school for the child is transferred to the charter school, which is an independently run, for-profit public school, or towards the private school tuition.
“They have decided to take some of the state money and give it off to private schools. Private schools didn’t get that money before and had to fund themselves,” Clark said. “You take the tax cap, which means we get less money, and you take part of that money and give it to private schools or charter schools so there are several cuts in our funding.”
The cuts in education funding have made it more complicated for the CEA, the teachers union in Columbus, to negotiate contracts for the teachers in BCSC.
“Because the CEA represents the teachers for bargaining, we work with the administration to see how much money we have and how we are going to spend it when it comes to teachers’ salaries,” London said. “We agreed with the administration that there needed to be some sort of other way than just the money we get from the state. We were going to have to look at our community to help with that.”
The administration and the CEA worked together on a plan to increase public education funds with the referendum, a proposed increase in property tax which the county will be able to vote on at the primaries on May 5. Dr. Jim Roberts, the superintendent of BCSC, was involved in the process of coming up with this plan, which will last eight years if it is passed.
“The referendum is a proposal to raise the property tax rate for our school corporation by 15.6 cents per $100 of assessed value,” Roberts said. “The purpose of that is to increase salaries for our employees with the bulk of those dollars going to teachers specifically and to impact areas that help with student safety.”
The goal of the referendum is to decrease teacher turnover in BCSC. Since 2012, 608 new teachers have been hired, and compared to last decade, the average number of resignations per year this decade has increased from 17.5 to 49.2 teachers, according to BCSC administration. The referendum will incentivize teachers to stay and teach in BCSC by giving raises to teachers every five years.
“That really means for the school itself is that you’re looking at better quality teachers and those teachers will want to stay, which is obviously better for [students],” Gafron said. “It is always better to have teachers that have been teaching for a while that aren’t necessarily brand new but also people who aren’t brand new to the district.”
While many people see the advantages of passing the referendum, some are concerned about how this will affect taxpayers. Andrew John is an Assistant General Manager for a local automotive supply company, and he does not believe the issues with the education system are solely confined to the school system.
“I understand there are potential benefits to increasing education spending, I understand stagnant wages, high turnover and long work hours without compensation. However these problems are not unique to the school system. They are shared by those of us who are being asked to pay ‘just a little bit more’,” John said. “ If the community feels like we need more money to spend on education take it from another bucket of money the government already takes from my wallet every time I get paid, buy something, own something, or sell something.”
Another concern John shares with others is being taxed both by the local and state governments for education funding.
“If the ‘Red for Ed’ movement manages to convince the state to spend more on education in the future, we will be double dinged both at the state and local level. I doubt we will see property taxes go down if the state begins to send more money to Bartholomew county,” John said. “Taxes easily ratchet up but rarely decrease.I oppose the referendum because I oppose tax rate increases.”
According to a meeting about the referendum led by Roberts, the county will tax no more than 15.6 cents, so if the state increases taxes to provide more money for public schools, the county will lower tax rates. Supporters of the referendum also believe the referendum is worth the tax increases because of the benefits it will provide for the community. By increasing education funding in BCSC if the referendum is passed, supporters of the referendum hope to increase the quality of the community as well.
“There is a certain pride in a community’s school system, especially in a community like Columbus that has that small town vibe, and a lot of what happens in the community does revolve around the schools here,” Gafron said. “If we didn’t have resources that we have currently, we wouldn’t have those connections, and our community wouldn’t have the pride that it does in our school.”
Roberts believes the referendum will benefit community members by helping the economy of the community.
“Given current salaries and the current cost of living, [teachers] may have to live somewhere else, that impacts the amount of dollars spent in our community,” Roberts said. “The percentage of teachers living in our community is about 70%.”
As well as improving the community and teachers, sophomore Anna Jackson predicts the referendum could have a positive impact on students’ learning experience.
“I think [the referendum] will help the education system in general because I don’t think we place as much importance around education as we should. After all, it is the future of our country,” Jackson said. “It would really help make [education] more of a priority in Columbus and the whole state in general. [Education] needs to be done right and done well, and I think a pay increase for teachers will help make that possible.”
Some choir students, like senior Pranav Venkataraman, have had three different teachers be their choir director over their four years in high school. Venkataraman has personally experienced the effects on teacher turnover in choir.
“I kind of wish I had someone there all four years because it would have been cool to have a teacher who would have seen me grow throughout [high school],” Venkataraman said. “Teachers who have been here a while have learned to work with kids, and they have had time to try and fail and figured out the best possible way to help the kids.”
London believes passing the referendum will not only have immediate effects on the public school system now, but she also considers the long-term benefits for future teachers.
“I feel like if I can advocate and do things to change things in our community, our state, and our nation, for teachers, then if either one of [my children] ever wants to be a teacher, then I am going to feel good about the decisions that they have made because I will have done everything I can to make sure it is better,” London said “Honestly, it is for people who want to be a teacher, for the future generation.”
The problem of teacher turnover is not just caused by teachers leaving BCSC for other higher-paying school corporations. According to Roberts, in 2008 there were over 18,000 people in teacher colleges in all of Indiana. In 2018, there were only about 8,000.
“If the salaries went up, people would be less scared about going into the profession and there would be more teachers,” Venkataraman said.
John sees the issue with the lack of funding for education and the decreasing amount of teachers, but he doesn’t believe taxation is the way to solve the problem.
“If property tax rates remain at their current levels, then the local government gets more money when the value of my property goes up. When I do better, the government does better,” John said. “However, when we raise tax rates, then the government gets more of my money even if I don’t make more. This increases the burden of the government on the people.”
John also fears that more Democrats might vote at the primary than Republicans, which would affect the outcomes of the votes for the referendum.
“During this primary there will be a democratic presidential primary on the ballot but not a significant Republican one,” John said. “This will lead to fewer Republicans turning out to vote during this primary, and Republicans are generally more fiscally conservative and likely to vote “no” on a tax increase.”
While the increase in tax rates may not seem that great, John worries that taxes can start to pile up and have too much of a burden on community members.
“I realize it’s only a few more dollars, but every couple of years some government entity comes and asks me for ‘just a little bit more’ for some because that I’m sure is well intended and noble,” John said. “ This year it is our education system. Two years ago it was our ‘crumbling infrastructure’. Two years from now it will be our drug epidemic, or our homeless problem. There is always some ‘good’ reason to raise taxes. After all, it’s ‘only a few more dollars’ they say.”
Like Clark and other teachers and students, John understands the demands of teachers’ jobs and the need for increasing their salaries. However, some people disagree on the idea of increasing taxes to do so.
“If you said teachers should be paid more, most people would say yes. If you said we want to take it out of your tax money, most people will say no,” Clark said. “People want high quality services, but it is hard to pay for.”