Bus rides to 'Red for Ed' rally got a bit tricky

Bill Riley

When the Vigo County School Corp. offered to let the teachers' association use school buses to go to the Red for Ed rally on Nov. 19 in Indianapolis, things got a little complicated.

The Vigo County Teachers Association indicated the buses would be for union members, prompting some district officials to raise concerns about providing a similar opportunity for non-union teachers.

VCTA used and partially funded two of the buses, and the school district provided a third bus open to any staff, including non-union teachers, according to Bill Riley, VCSC director of communications.

Total cost for transportation using three school buses was $1,017, with VCTA providing a $344 donation to cover fuel costs for the two buses they "commissioned," Riley stated.

The superintendent and school board had offered to provide bus transportation and drivers for the rally.

The VCTA indicated its buses were for members only.

The teachers union has about 830 members, which means about 200 are not members, Mark Lee, VCTA president, said Tuesday.

When asked why non-union teachers could not ride in those buses, Lee said, "Part of being a professional is that you join to support your association" although he also said any staff person who wanted to support Red for Ed "was welcome."

Riley said the district offered to provide bus transportation because "Nov. 19 proved to be an impactful day in our state, and we supported our teachers who wanted to attend. We're thankful that the VCTA provided a donation to help cover the costs of bus transportation ... and we felt providing that transportation gave teachers a safe, environmentally-friendly way to make their voices heard while showing them that we supported their actions."

A request was made for there to be an additional bus to transport other staff, including non-union teachers.

Jackie Lower, school board president, said, "I just wanted everybody to be able to go. I think everyone felt that was a good idea; I think there had been some misunderstanding about who could go and who couldn't. Everybody ended up going who wanted to go."

Lower added, "I think it worked out well. We had a great showing of Vigo County staff and personnel. ... I don't think there was any problem."

When she previously worked for the school district as an educator, she had always been a VCTA member, and she is now a lifelong member of the Indiana State Teachers Association, she said. "I'm very protective and supportive of the VCTA, but I wanted to make sure everybody felt they could go."

She did not want to comment on buses partially funded by VCTA being only for teachers who were union members. "I don't get involved in what their determinations are" and that would be a question for Lee, she said.

"I wanted to make sure everyone knew there was a spot for them ... and I think that was clarified," she said. "I think there were some concerns at first ... but it was taken care of quickly."

Lower said she responded to a communication indicating the original buses were for VCTA members only. She wanted it understood that "everyone could go."

She added, "I was thanked by many people to have gotten that clarified."

"I don't think it was a big deal at all. There was just some clarification that needed to be made and it was taken care of quickly and everyone was fine with it," Lower said.

Julie Slavens, staff attorney with the Indiana School Boards Association, said state law provides that district-owned buses can be used with the governing body's permission/authority to transport employees to an approved or sponsored employee meeting.

ISBA took a number of calls from around the state on the issue.

"We advised school boards of that provision and that employee meeting is not defined in the statute," she said.

"When looking at the strict meaning of employee meeting, I'm not sure a political rally meets that definition," Slavens said. However, nothing in the law prohibits school buses from being used for that purpose.

The statute is broadly worded, she said. And since the law states it is the governing body that authorizes the bus travel, "I guess the governing body can determine what an employee meeting is," Slavens said.

Thousands of teachers and other educators descended on the Statehouse in Indianapolis on Nov. 19, the Legislature's organizational day.

Dozens of Indiana's school districts canceled classes as teachers put in for personal days so they could attend.

Not everyone supported the closure of schools for lobbying on a regularly scheduled school day, noting the effort — although supported by the administration and boards in many districts — was effectively a job action that canceled classes.

The Indiana Business Journal, for example, quoted labor experts who pointed out that "by asking for a personal day teachers are using a protest approach experts said was similar to a 'sick out,' when a group of workers organize to call in sick. It’s different than a strike, which would mean teachers refused to work and therefore give up pay and eventually lose their benefits. Teachers mobilize on a smaller scale every year to advocate at the state legislature, but the size of this movement appears to be unprecedented in Indiana."

Gov. Eric Holcomb was not among the critics. He said the call on whether to close for union-organized rally was a local decision and that he applauded teachers for expressing their concerns.

The Vigo County School Corp. will make up the missed school day Feb. 14. VCSC teachers will not get paid for Nov. 19 because there was no school; they will get paid when they work the makeup day Feb. 14.

The district canceled because of concerns about student safety as well as the quality of the school day; it did not have enough substitutes to cover for all the absences. Also, the district also wanted to show support for teachers, said Riley.

Sue Loughlin can b reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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