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Teachers, supporters give Kansas lawmakers an earful at legislative forum

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, April 28, 2014, at 10:49 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, May 8, 2014, at 11:19 p.m.

Photos

Retired teacher Leota Coats drew a standing ovation from a crowd of 200 Monday night when she told a dozen Kansas lawmakers that they’d done more harm than good with a recent action to strip teachers of state-mandated due-process protection from summary dismissal.

Twenty-four years ago, Coats was dismissed from her teaching job at Wellington High School after she had flunked a star football player before a big game. “They came to me and asked me to change the grade,” she said. “I said no, I couldn’t, not in good faith.”

She fought the firing to the state Supreme Court and eventually won reinstatement.

“I tell you this because it illustrates how capricious a school administration and school board can be,” said Coats, who lives in Howard. “A winning football team was more important than what was going on in my classroom.”

Coats was one of about 200 teachers and supporters who packed Derby City Hall for the final south-central Kansas legislative forum of the year. Lawmakers return to Topeka on Wednesday for the annual wrap-up session.

An equal number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers attended the forum.

The crowd cheered raucously for the Democrats and for Rep. Steven Anthimides of Wichita, the only local Republican representative who voted against House Bill 2506.

The Republicans got only scattered applause.

Teachers not only objected to the contents of the bill, they also were harshly critical of the way it was handled, narrowly passed on a Sunday night after a weekend of middle-of-the-night meetings and marathon floor debates.

HB 2506 provides funding to address a Supreme Court order that found disparities in state support for rich and poor school districts.

Conservative Republicans, primarily senators, attached several policy changes to the measure.

In addition to the due-process provision, HB 2506 allows school districts to hire math and science teachers who have a bachelor’s degree in their subject area but don’t have teaching degrees. And it allows businesses to claim tax credits to pay for scholarships for children to attend private schools.

Gail Jamison, a member of the Goddard school board, said the Legislature was turning young people off to careers in teaching.

“We have boards of education, staff parents and students feeling that public education is under attack by policy makers and special interest groups,” she said.

Donald Callaway, who teaches construction at East High School, told the Republican lawmakers that their decision to pass the bill had mobilized ordinarily docile teachers to work to defeat them in the upcoming November elections.

He likened the bill to the Pearl Harbor attack.

“You snuck up on us and you attacked us and you sunk all our ships,” he said.

“Everybody knows how that turned out” for the Japanese, he added.

Lawmakers barely spoke during the meeting, although the host legislator, Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby, acknowledged at one point, “It’s not fun to come out and be yelled at for an hour and a half.”

Howell, who’s leaving the Legislature to run for Sedgwick County Commission, said later that he doesn’t think the school bill will be as bad for Republican candidates as the reaction at the forum might indicate.

He said the teachers had organized their turnout and didn’t necessarily represent the opinions of a cross-section of the community.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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