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The morning after legislators approved a state budget bill, teachers expressed frustration in continued statewide “Red For Ed” rallies supporting public education.

“It’s just very disappointing when the legislators doesn’t talk to any teachers,” Amy Hert, a vice president for the Portage Teachers’ Association, said Thursday morning. “They just make decisions.”

Hert was one of thousands of teachers, administrators, school staff members and supporters who blanketed the state in red this week as the Indiana General Assembly voted to approve its two-year budget bill allocating a total $753 million increase in school funding, but directing no specific funds to teacher pay.

Early proposals this budget session, which ended Wednesday, were met with outrage in what public educators call an increasingly unfair model of state funding for poor and rural school districts.

In Northwest Indiana, schools in the East Chicago, Griffith, Hebron, Lake Central, Lake Ridge, Portage and Whiting school districts, among others, rallied with administrative support in the days leading up to the end of the legislative session.

Unlike in California or Colorado, where recent teacher strikes have garnered national attention, walkouts during the school day are illegal under Indiana labor laws. So, Hoosier public education advocates got creative organizing rallies, walk-ins and school board resolutions directly before and after school.

“We don’t like to be political. As teachers, we like to go in our classrooms, we want to teach our kids and we hope that they give us money,” GlenEva Dunham, president of the Gary Teachers Union and the state AFT, at a Tuesday afternoon march in Whiting. “Well, that don’t work anymore. We can’t hope. We’ve got to demand, we’ve got to fight.”

State budget bill passes

Indiana lawmakers lauded the final version of the state budget bill, which passed late Wednesday night closing the months-long legislative session five days ahead of schedule.

Republican senators called the budget a win for education funding — a priority set early in the legislative session.

“With the investments we’ll make over the next two years, we’ll be able to make our strong state, even more so,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said, offering his support in a statement Wednesday night. “We’re making historic investments in K-12 education, expanding our school safety efforts, and implementing all the recommendations to improve our child services.”

House Enrolled Act 1001 allocates a 2.5% increase in education funding each of the next two years — with $539 million in additional funds being directed to student tuition support, $140 million being freed up for districts to use at their own discretion and $74 million supporting statewide grant programs.

But public education advocates have been quick to point out a 2.5% increase does little to meet rising costs resulting from inflation, especially as the state’s budget has grown over the years to also fund an increasing number of charter schools and vouchers.

“They’re just not keeping up with the cost of education in general,” Tracy Whitman, of the Griffith teachers union, said at a Tuesday morning rally outside Griffith High School. “It’s not just teacher pay, but in general. We have to worry about how are we spending money on our children and their services.”

The approved budget still failed to include any language specific to teacher pay, despite early pledges of commitment to the issue in a state blighted by teacher shortages.

School administrators were largely supportive of rallies this week joining their teachers and union representatives at rallies across the Region.

“Our administration fully supported this march and our administrators we here because they all benefit from the funding as well,” said Pam Smith of the School City of Whiting Teachers’ Association. “They want to give us money but they don’t have it.”

The Portage Township School Board read a resolution at its Monday night meeting calling on legislators to prioritize teacher pay, increase support of grant programs and pull from state reserves to allocate more funding for K-12 education.

The Valparaiso City Council passed a similar resolution at its Monday night meeting expressing support for public education funding.

“We have to do better for our teachers because that in turn helps our kids,” Portage board member Shaunna Finley said at the Monday meeting at Fegely Middle School. “We want to help you, we need to figure out a way to make your voices heard.”

A referendum state

Public education advocates say the budget follows a trend of less-than-stellar state support leading Indiana to become a “referendum state” in terms of seeking public funding.

A total of 96 referendums have been sought statewide in the last five years, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. Of those referendums, 21 have failed, leaving struggling districts to do more with less.

Lake Central School Corp. educators walked-in to school this week expressing fears of what could happen if the district, which passed its 2011 referendum by a 55-45% margin, can't pass future referendums.

"We are in a better financial place than we have been in a long time, only because of our referendum," reads a statement presented at each Lake Central school this week. "When the funding for public schools was changed, we were told that the state would take care of its schools.  That promise has not been kept."

On Wednesday morning — the same day legislators approved the state budget bill — Lake Ridge educators proceeded from school to school in their district with signs reading “Save OUR School” and “Education Cuts Never Heal”.

The Lake Ridge New Tech Schools district announced last week it will be cutting more than 20 staff positions and closing its Hosford Elementary at the end of the year after its failed November referendum.

“There’s inequity in our schools and how they fund our schools,” Lake Ridge Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley said of the state’s education funding formula. “We did all the things that we were asked to do with no new money. At some point somebody needs to see our value and our worth and fund us equitably.”

Daniel Brugioni, president of the Lake Ridge Teachers Federation, said after meeting with other union presidents downstate he believes more rallies could be seen long before the next funding biennium.

“There’s a real dissatisfaction, a sense of when are we going to do something,” Brugioni said. “I think this is a movement toward something bigger. There’s more of a growing sense that action has to be taken.”

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