Kansas teachers union plans lawsuit over policies in school funding bill

06/09/2014 12:00 PM

08/08/2014 10:24 AM

The state’s largest teachers union announced plans to file a lawsuit in Shawnee County District Court this month against a controversial education bill, but officials were tight-lipped about the lawsuit’s details at a news conference Monday.

Lawmakers increased the amount of funding for public schools to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court decision in March that cited funding inequities among districts, particularly among poorer and wealthier districts. But lawmakers coupled the increase in funding with policy reforms, including the elimination of mandatory hearings before a public school teacher’s contract can be terminated.

David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the lawsuit would challenge this hearing policy but could also extend to other policies.

“There are a number of pieces in there which we think are harmful to kids, to teachers, to educators generally,” Schauner said. “And we haven’t come to a final decision about how broad our complaint will be.”

The state teachers union is still in the process of drafting the complaint and is receiving help from the National Education Association’s legal team, which successfully won a case against a similar law in North Carolina last month.

Schauner said there were constitutional grounds to challenge the policy, but he did not elaborate. He also said the bill may have been passed through improper procedures.

“We would have filed already, but we want to be very careful about what we file,” he said. “We don’t want to overreach, and at the same time, we want to be certain that the process, the legislative process, was properly followed. And we don’t think it was.”

He pointed to questions raised by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, about whether the state’s open-meetings law was violated when lawmakers met in the early morning to make changes to the bill without announcing the meeting on the Senate side.

Schauner also said the bill was a “classic example of log rolling,” in which unrelated policies are added to a bill originally drafted for a specific purpose, in this case the court-ordered funding fix.

Gov. Sam Brownback responded to the news of the lawsuit with an e-mailed statement.

“We are not going to speculate on what may or may not be included in any lawsuit KNEA may choose to file in the future. The education bill provided $129 million in funding to classrooms and for property tax relief, it provided additional pay for ‘master teachers,’ and it returned local control to school districts,” he said.

“This is a good bill that benefits Kansas children. I hope KNEA will take no action that threatens funding for our schools and the welfare of our students,” Brownback said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, did not address the accusation that the bill had been pushed through the Legislature improperly, but, in an e-mail, she did defend the policies in the bill. Wagle said lawmakers passed this bill with the welfare of children in mind and that the reforms would lead to student success.

“However, with the filing of this lawsuit, it is apparent that the KNEA is more concerned about its members than student achievement and outcomes,” she said.

Karen Godfrey, the KNEA’s president, alluded to changes to the teacher licensing process, which make it easier for industry professionals to become teachers without education training, possibly hinting that the union would challenge this policy.

She also criticized a provision that gives tax breaks to corporations who donate to private school scholarship funds, arguing that it would drain money from public schools.

Marcus Baltzell, the union’s communications director, said the announcement – which comes before the details of the lawsuit are finalized – was spurred by the news breaking on social media after union members began tweeting it after a retreat last week.

A panel of three district judges will meet in Topeka on Wednesday to review whether the bill, signed into law by Brownback, meets the Supreme Court’s order for more equitable funding among districts.

The initial court decision had outlined steps the Legislature could take to correct inequities in capital building funding and in the local-option budget – local property taxes used to provide funding beyond the base funding that comes from the state.

If the judges rule that the bill did not address inequities in funding, they have the power to freeze local-option budget money, a major portion of school funding.

Schauner said the KNEA’s lawsuit, which is separate, would not affect whether schools received their funding, as it would be focused only on the additional policy pieces of the bill.

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