Kansas' new school finance law is a mixed blessing for teachers

7/16/2014

By Brad Cooper

By Brad Cooper

The Kansas City Star

(MCT) — As a fourth-grade teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District, Ellen Stevens is in line for her first raise in five years.

Although she welcomes the $2,000-a-year boost, the very legislation that's funding the raise also stripped Stevens and thousands of other teachers of administrative appeals before they can be fired.

"I'm not going to get angry because somebody is giving me extra money," Stevens said. "But money isn't the only issue that concerns teachers."

Salary increases are just one factor that contributes to the classroom environment, teachers say. Staffing levels, class size and overall school funding are just as important, they said.

The school finance bill passed by the Kansas Legislature this year paved the way for a handful of districts — such as Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe — to raise property taxes to spend on teachers and other expenses.

It was part of a deal answering a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found a spending disparity between rich and poor schools.

The Legislature added millions for schools, a move popular with teachers and their unions. It also tacked on conservative policies promoting school choice with tax credits and eliminating a tenure-like job protection for teachers that had been on the books more than 50 years. Those changes were widely denounced by teacher unions.

Teacher groups promise to be politically active this election year, especially with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback seeking a second term against the presumed Democratic nominee, Kansas Rep. Paul Davis.

School districts, meanwhile, are using the new law to put more money into teacher salaries. But teacher tensions remain high.

"Teachers are angry," Stevens said. "All we're trying to do is help these kids have a good future, and for that we are accused of being union thugs, lazy and incompetent. It's really difficult."

Some lawmakers question why teachers are upset about a bill adding money to the raise pool and letting their unions bargain for job protection — even as the appeal guarantees disappear.

They think most of the complaints come from teacher unions trying try to gin up insecurity to fuel membership.

Kansas Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican and a Shawnee Mission teacher, thinks the climate in schools is better than what is portrayed by union leaders.

"Most teachers, at least the ones I associate with, are pleased with their job," said Smith, who has been a sharp critic of public employee unions. "They like what they do or they wouldn't do it."

The new law handed school boards the ability to raise more local property taxes, something particularly coveted by Johnson County schools.

Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley already agreed to take advantage of their new taxing authority, which will generate some of the money needed for the salaries.

Teachers in Shawnee Mission will receive a 3.25 percent increase in their base salary for the upcoming 2014-15 school year. Their last raise in base salary was for the 2009-10 school year. Blue Valley teachers will receive an average 2 percent increase. Their last raise was for 2012-13.

Taxpayers in Shawnee Mission could expect to see about a $40 increase on a $250,000 home under the district's new taxing authority. The increase in Blue Valley would be about $35, although school officials there said that could be offset by increases in other revenue sources. The increases must be approved by voters to be extended past this school year.

The Olathe and De Soto districts also are planning on raising property tax rates. But if they move ahead, property taxes will actually drop because the increase will be offset by new money the Legislature approved this year for property-poor districts.

Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson said his district probably would have been limited to one-time teacher bonuses if it didn't have the ability to raise property taxes. He also said the ability to raise property taxes made it possible to cut fees for all-day kindergarten and activities fees for high school students this year.

Kansas Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican and a member of the House Education Committee, said the school finance bill shouldn't be credited entirely for pay raises and the cuts in student fees.

She supported giving districts greater local taxing authority. But Rooker voted against the final school bill because of the policies that conservative lawmakers added at the last minute.

At least in the case of Shawnee Mission, she said, the district is making other spending decisions — such as reducing the number of aides — that are freeing up money.

The school finance bill "clearly plays a part," she said, but is not "the full reason they are doing the things they are doing."

No doubt, teachers appreciate the raises. But some say they feel unnerved by losing the guarantee of an appeals hearing before they could be fired once they have been on the job for three years.

"There's a bit more worry," said Bob Anderson, a teacher who works with gifted children in the Turner School District in Kansas City, Kan.

Some say they feel stepped on by policies that they think leave teachers vulnerable in the workplace and undercut public schooling.

"It is difficult as a teacher in Kansas not to feel like we have been collectively slapped," said Jeff Baxter, the 2014 Kansas teacher of the year, from the Leavenworth School District.

Last year, the Legislature weakened teacher unions when it barred public employee unions from deducting political donations from paychecks for political activities. Lawmakers also tried restricting collective bargaining for teachers. Looking forward, teachers ask: What's next?

"I am still very scared about where this is going," said Stacey Sales, a fourth-grade teacher in Olathe Public Schools.

"Yeah, I might get a raise," Sales said, "but what about all those years before when I didn't? My raise isn't matching the cost of living."

Then there's that nagging tenure controversy.

"You can tell me I got a raise, but I can be fired at any given time," she said. "What good does my raise do me then?"

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