Members of the Portage Association of Teachers (PAT), as well as teachers from other districts, retirees and supporters from the community, gathered at the main district building. The gathering on Tuesday, Oct. 19 served to raise awareness for teachers struggling with contract negotiations.

The largest issue facing the negotiations, which will lead to a mediation and increased tensions if not resolved soon, is based on a lack of pay increases for experienced teachers.

“We're out here because we have been trying to bargain a contract that gives our teachers, who have been here for ten plus years, a fair pay raise. Our years one through ten are just kind of on top of each other because we keep raising the base. So that top half of our pay scale is kind of scrunched together. People who've been here ten plus years aren't making much more than a first year teacher,” said Shawn Chamberlain, Portage Association of Teachers President and a first grade Portage Township Schools (PTS) teacher.

PTS is a school district based in Portage, IN. The district serves Portage Township, with 11 total schools and over 7,000 students, elementary through high school aged. The Portage Association of Teachers is a local affiliate of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) and represents the teachers of PTS, per their Facebook page.

“This is our bargaining time from Sept. 15 to Nov. 15 to bargain a contract for our teachers. It’s not been going well. We have supported administration in raising the base pay for teachers because you obviously want good teachers, you want to have a competitive base pay. But, what happens when you keep doing that, you end up with a sixth year teacher making what a first or second year teacher is,” Chamberlain said. 

The lack of competitive pay has resulted in high teacher turnover and movement to other districts.

“So what is your reason to stay, to be loyal, if these people just keep creeping up to what you’re making? We’re trying to make that spread out to decompress those salaries so that people who have been loyal, who have stayed and trained and who have gotten us through COVID can feel appreciated,” Chamberlain said. 

While the majority of other Indiana districts have already reached settlements or are in the process of coming to a conclusion, the ending of the negotiation window is rapidly approaching without satisfactory agreements being reached. 

“I'm excited because the contract is more than just the people at the bargaining table. This contract affects everybody, it’s just heartbreaking and so sad, because I just expect more and expect better. And we can do better. It didn't have to come to this,” an anonymous Portage teacher shared. “We have to treat each other with respect and honesty. And this is not something that we can just hide under the rug. But, this is not something that we can't recover from either. So I'm willing to work towards healing these relationships so that we can once again have a unified administration and teachers union and be strong.”

Only 13 U.S. states provide teachers with the right to strike, including Indiana’s neighboring states of Illinois and Ohio. As Indiana prohibits striking, it is not an option for Indiana teachers unless they are willing to risk being fired.

“You can lose your teacher's license. You could just go through all the legislation that happened in Indiana since 2012. They’ve tried to have it where we couldn’t have our union dues deducted from our paycheck, but we can have donations. They’ve made it so all we can bargain, we used to bargain everything, work hours, etc. We can bargain pay and pay related items. It’s shrunk our contracts,” Chamberlain said.

Portage’s struggles come on the back of years of turmoil. Indiana’s “Red for Ed” campaign has sparked a large movement, led by the ISTA and has achieved varying degrees of success throughout the state.

“We keep reiterating our goals of trying to make fair and equal pay for teachers. And we haven't been heard. The offers that we've gotten from the school board have not even tried to meet our goals. They're trying to meet their own goals,” said a teacher who chose to remain anonymous. “It's just unfortunate that we can't come to some agreement, when they're basically just kind of, to me, it seems like they're just telling us what they want and not trying to do true collective bargaining.”

The main issues put forth by the presented contract include a $5,000 raise for all teachers, lack of benefits or sliding pay scale for teachers who have been with the district for years and lack of fulfillment towards the length of promised parental leave.

“Indiana code states that we have to be given a year of unpaid childcare leave and then you can come back to a position in your district. We’ve shown them that language, we've shown them case law and our lawyer, and they’re still not abiding by that. So that’s an ongoing issue in a female dominated field,” Chamberlain said. “They want to give you your twelve weeks of parental leave. And then say if yours ended in October, then they would give you to the quarter and if it ended in December they would give them until the end of the semester.” 

A bargaining meeting that was intended to directly follow the peaceful protest was cancelled by the school board with little notice. 

“They [the administration] wanted us to send our proposal via email. We sent a general proposal. It didn't have our exact dollars, because we still haven't gotten some information that we need from them. So they decided that we wouldn't bargain today, they would get us those [pay] numbers, which we've been waiting for for two months. Then they want us to then email our new proposal. Our response was that we'd be happy to bring it to the table, because that's where we bargain, not via email, and they canceled our negotiations today,” said an anonymous member of the PAT.

The struggles with administration and the lack of feeling appreciation for the work that they do has left a dark cloud over the teachers and their spirits.

“It’s like a trickle down effect, you know you’re trying to do your best because you want to do what’s best for kids, but you’re just so drained and tired and disappointed and heartbroken,” Chamberlain said.

Some community members have become suspicious of the school board and their motives.

“If there’s not a problem, why did they tell the employees to leave at two o’clock from the administration building? There’s nothing you’re trying to hide? Why’d you leave at two o’clock? Parents and other people can’t come into the school board meetings and address problems or issues? They’re closing the door on students, they’re not letting anybody in…” said an attendee who wished to remain anonymous. 

Frustrations have built over differences in healthcare benefits as well as new retirement fund allocations.

“Why are the administration allowed to leave early and still get paid more? What I understand, the funding was supposed to be X amount. The administration decided to give a certain amount to the teachers, less than all the other districts did,” said the same attendee. “Then take that extra funding and tell the teachers in order to get it they have to pay more into retirement, into Porter's school system retirement fund in order to get that retirement money. Then that leaves that money for people to do whatever they want with it, to manipulate it how they want. You might put in $5, you might get $3 back instead.”

Jennifer Hickman, a parent who brought her 1st and 3rd grade children with her, believes PTS teachers are not being compensated for the quality of their work, especially those teachers who have helped with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

“Compensating the staff comparable to the administration, to bring in better curriculum like the teachers have asked for. Better compensation and wages, they deserve it,” Hickman said.

The crowd included members of teacher’s unions from other districts, including the Duneland School Corporation which encompasses Chesterton and some other areas of Porter County. 

“I wanted to come over here and stand with the Portage Association of Teachers because I feel that it’s not all about money. It’s about professional respect and supporting your teachers to do an exceedingly difficult job in the classroom. I'm proud to stand with the Portage teachers. I know that they, like every other teacher in the country, have worked really hard over the last two years, especially. The profession of education has become more difficult as more challenges have come our way,” said Bob DeRuntz, Co-President of the Duneland Teachers Association. 

The hope is that these demonstrations will prompt the district to take action in coming to a resolution.

“When we can work together with our own administration and our own communities, to make our job easier to serve our kids, that's the goal that you obviously want. So hopefully, this big turnout today will encourage the Portage administration and superintendent to sit down and find some reasonable solutions to the challenges,” DeRuntz said.

Many attendees chose to participate in order to show their respect for PAT, a sentiment that several have felt has not been reflected through the actions of the school board.

“I'm out here to support poor teachers, and to draw attention to the struggle that they're in with the Portage Township School Board. We've been negotiating since August. Negotiations haven't gone well, because of money, because of childcare leave and because of the lack of respect delivered by the board's team at the bargaining table,” an anonymous attendee said.

An anonymous teacher shared the impact that seeing the large turn out had on her.

“Honestly, I’m kind of close to tears. It’s pretty awesome to realize the work that you do. Sometimes you don’t know, as a teacher, if it's landing, and obviously we’ve made some impressions on people and [shown] that we take care of each other here as well,” she said.

Protesters have set up a link where individuals can share their opinions with the school board.

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