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Teachers association files unfair labor practice claim against Southwestern school system

On the same day the Southwestern Consolidated Schools board nominated its next superintendent, the teachers association filed an unfair labor practice claim with the Indiana Education Employee Relations Board.

At its February 9 meeting, the school board accepted the resignation of superintendent Curtis Chase, who took a position with the Rush County school corporation.

During a medical leave in 2021, Southwestern Elementary School principal Joshua Edwards filled in admirably, according to the board. On Wednesday, 28 days after the resignation, the board nominated Edwards to become superintendent.

Many teachers, staff members and alumni were frustrated with the lack of transparency in the process and penned an open letter to the school board citing distrust with its decision-making process. In the letter, they requested the superintendent position be posted statewide, they wanted the utilization of a university-driven consulting service to identify qualified candidates, and they wanted to include parents and other stakeholders in the interview process.

Following Wednesday night’s meeting, Doug Gaking (photo, left), president of the Southwestern Consolidated Classroom Teachers Association, held a press conference in front of Southwestern High School to lay out the pattern of behavior that led to the unfair labor practice (ULP) claim.

“What might be hard for some people, I’ve been dealing with this for about two years and been aware of what’s been happening and haven’t been able to talk to a lot of people about it,” said Gaking following the press conference. “Now, a lot of people are just starting to realize what’s been going on and processing that. I think that will be a tough time for our community as we all try to figure out how to navigate this.”

The unfair labor practice claim included two names: Southwestern Elementary School principal Joshua Edwards and school board member Jerry Drake.

A case manager will be assigned by the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board (IEERB) to handle the claim, according to Chad Hunter (photo, second from right) of the Indiana State Teachers Association, who was in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting.

“The teachers are working through all the legal processes that they have available to them under Indiana code,” said Hunter. “We need the support of the community. We need the community to start asking the school board some tough questions about the way they are administering affairs here at Southwestern.”

Gaking cited a complete lack of transparency in hiring a new superintendent. He also stated public notification of an impending school board meeting was done improperly, the open superintendent position was never posted locally or statewide, then also detailed instances within the elementary school of threats and intimidation, first started when Individual Education Program (IEP) minutes for students with special needs were not being completed.

“When they brought these concerns to the elementary building principal through the building discussions process, in accordance with Indiana code, the principal responded to the entire staff with threats and intimidation,” said Gaking. “Over the next few years, other teachers would face further threats, screaming and pounding fists on desks in response to trying to have their concerns about students’ needs addressed.”

Gaking added other instances where a teacher was denied union representation for a meeting over a disciplinary matter and a teacher was asked to attend a parent meeting only to find the principal and a school board member present instead.

“This is one of many instances where board members have had inappropriate levels of access to the building during the school days,” said Gaking, who is the music teacher at Southwestern Jr./Sr. High School.

Gaking brought many of these issues to Chase’s attention in the fall of 2021 as well as the school board in executive session, which is not open to the public. He believes Chase made an effort to improve the situation but was met with resistance from the board.

“Each of the counts I’ve addressed here are included in the ULP we filed this morning citing multiple Indiana code violations for each count,” said Gaking. “The ULP has been shared with all school board members and the school corporation’s lawyer in advance of today’s board meeting.

“I would like to reiterate that we have repeatedly brought our concerns to administrators and board members through the proper processes over the last few years. Instead of any rectification of these serious matters, we have only received further threats and violations of our rights.”

Now in his eighth year as the teacher association president, Gaking is unsure what lies ahead in the final two months of the school year.

“I wish I knew … I wish I knew,” said Gaking. “Everyone is a little anxious right now. It’s probably going to be a stressful time.”

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