State teachers union files suit over school finance bill

08/11/2014 12:59 PM

08/13/2014 12:34 PM

The state’s largest teachers union filed a lawsuit against the state in Shawnee County on Monday, alleging that a recent school finance bill violated the Kansas Constitution’s “one-subject rule” by combining appropriations with policy.

The Kansas National Education Association’s lawsuit calls for a provision that eliminates a state mandate for due process hearings before a public school teacher can be fired to be severed from the rest of H.B. 2506, legislation meant to address a Supreme Court order for more equitable funding between districts.

“In enacting HB 2506, the Legislature ‘logrolled’ the Teacher Dismissal Provisions into an appropriations bill, thereby evading the legislative process and debate that would have taken place had those provisions been made to stand on their own in separate legislation,” the KNEA’s complaint states.

The Kansas Constitution states that no bill shall contain more than one subject and that the subject of each bill shall be expressed in the title. An exception is made for appropriations bills, but the Supreme Court has ruled that subjects unrelated to an appropriations bill’s primary purpose may not be included.

The question before the court will be whether pairing teacher dismissal with education funding violates that.

The suit notes that several lawmakers objected to policy insertion into bill without being “debated in the Legislature’s education committees,’” a criticism that was lodged by both Democrats and moderate Republicans.

“We believe we’re on solid ground,” said David Schauner, the KNEA’s general counsel, outside the Shawnee County Courthouse. “We think this is the clearest early course to take.”

The suit names Gov. Sam Brownback and the state of Kansas as defendants. Brownback declined to comment on the suit while walking the halls of the Capitol, explaining that his office would need time to review it first.

His office later issued a statement later in the day. “Today’s lawsuit by the KNEA is little more than an exercise in labor union politics. Kansas has high quality, well-funded schools and I signed HB 2506 to keep it that way,” Brownback said in an e-mail. “I am concerned this misdirected lawsuit may cast doubt on, or unwittingly endanger, school funding just as classrooms are convening all across Kansas.”

The attorney general's office had yet to receive a copy of the lawsuit as of Monday afternoon and would not comment at this time.

Conservative Republican lawmakers who pushed for dropping the state mandate argued that it would help ensure that only quality teachers remain in the classroom by making it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers. They have also argued, since the bill’s passage, that the measure increases local control by leaving the decision on how to handle teacher dismissal in the hands of school districts.

The KNEA has argued that the protection is meant to ensure that good teachers aren’t wrongly terminated, especially if they clash with administrators while advocating for their students.

“We believe that Kansas teachers should have the right to advocate for their students without fear of job loss,” said Mark Farr, the union’s president.

Schauner argued that the due process protection “provided reasonable protection and job security for teachers who do a good job.”

“And we believe that’s a critical component for continuing to provide a quality education for kids in Kansas,” he added.

Schauner pushed back against critics who say that teachers should not be entitled to protections that other workers lack.

“One of the legislators said ‘well, you know, garbage collectors don’t get due process.’ Well, frankly it’s a little offensive to think that teachers were doing the same level of work as garbage collectors,” Schauner said.

He argued the stresses and responsibilities of teaching make the profession unique. “We believe that the stresses of that job entitle those employees, our members, to a quality dismissal process.”

The issue has been at the center of both the governor’s race and races for the Kansas House.

Americans For Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce have attacked the bill’s opponents with mailers accusing them of being anti-education. At the same time, the KNEA has aggressively campaigned against the bill’s supporters and Brownback, who signed it into law after weeks of protest.

“Our educators are involved in all the races with the intent to elect education friendly candidates,” Farr said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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