The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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April 9, 2014

School bill draws fire from Kansas teachers; area lawmakers split on merits of measure

PITTSBURG, Kan. — After a weekend of debate, a school finance bill passed by Kansas lawmakers has drawn fire from some Southeast Kansas residents and accolades from others, and has prompted confusion for more than a few.

At the heart of it is $126 million in education funding in response to requirements set forth in a recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling.

But it also includes Republican-sponsored add-ons that deal with due process for teachers, tax relief for corporations and relaxed licensure requirements.

The bill increases base state aid per pupil by $14, from $3,838 to $3,852.

It also allows school districts to increase funding raised locally, the “local option budget.” Under the local option budget, districts are allowed to tax local property up to 30 percent of the base state aid per pupil.

The bill also allows some districts to ask residents to vote by mail ballot to increase their local option budgets up to 33 percent, a provision geared to those already above 30 percent that do not have high property values.

That’s welcome news, said Galena Superintendent Brian Smith, for his district, which is small and relatively poor.

“The financial end of it was very kind to Galena,” he said. “We were always the most punished because we were the poorest. It’s very beneficial to us in several areas.”

According to a document from the Kansas Department of Education, the bill likely will mean an additional $262,875 for the Galena School District.

CONCERNS

What has drawn the ire of area teachers and teacher associations, however, is a trio of provisions attached to the bill in the wee hours — provisions that teachers say weren’t discussed in legislative committees and could jeopardize public education.

One appears to reduce due process rights for teachers who face dismissal, leaving it up to local districts to decide whether due process should remain in effect. It’s a protection that has been on the books since 1957.

Social media have seen a flurry of opposition, with many urging people to sign an online petition to be given to Gov. Sam Brownback. The goal is 15,000 signatures, and the total had reached 14,359 Wednesday night.

“Many teachers want to advocate for their students, which causes them sometimes to say things that might not be popular with administrators or parents, and I believe that now they may be unwilling to be as strong an advocate for their students because of a lack of job security,” said longtime Pittsburg educator Sherry Turnbull, who was in the Capitol over the weekend for the proceedings.

Others, like Anita White, a social studies teacher at Pittsburg High School who has a background in law and political science, and was at the proceedings, say the wording of the more than 60-page bill is complicated and complex, and could be left open to interpretation.

She worries that it has the potential for abuse across the state, from districts that have a board member who doesn’t like the grade his child received, to those who want older, higher-paid teachers off the payroll in exchange for young, inexperienced teachers much lower on the pay scale.

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