August 29, 2014

Republican Party newsletter tells members how to deal with ‘KNEA trolls’

A spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association says the reference insults teachers. A GOP leader says “trolls” referred to people who constantly post negative messages about the education bill.

An e-mail newsletter from the Kansas Republican Party sent out Friday afternoon instructs party members about how to deal with “KNEA trolls.”

The newsletter, which goes out to thousands of people across the state, focused on education this week. It included a section titled “HOW TO DEAL WITH TROLLS WHO CHALLENGE THE EDUCATION REFORM BILL.”

The Legislature passed a school finance bill in April that coupled increased funding with several reforms, including the elimination of state-mandated hearings before a public school teacher can be fired.

The Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, opposed the bill and has dogged conservative candidates on the campaign trail throughout the summer.

“There are are frequent online clashes with KNEA Trolls who attack the education bill by spreading falsehoods regarding its passage,” the e-mail states, repeating the word “are.” It then offers exchanges between a “troll,” who it said lives in Johnson County, and Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park.

Clay Barker, the party’s executive director, said the intent was to show members how to combat falsehoods that get “passed around so much that people think they’re true.”

KNEA members criticized the e-mail, which comes on the heels of comments Gov. Sam Brownback made in Hutchinson this week about regretting an adversarial relationship with teachers.

“When the Governor’s allies and party leaders denigrate educators for exercising their rights to engage in public political debate, by asking clear and respectful questions, it speaks volumes about their real agenda to marginalize the professionals who most closely serve Kansas public school students,” said Marcus Baltzell, spokesman for the KNEA, in an e-mail.

“They forget that when calling teachers who are KNEA members ‘trolls’ they’re including some long standing legislators in that insult,” Baltzell continued. “Not to mention nearly 23,000 teachers, support pros, admins., retired and pre-service educators. All of whom are eligible to exercise their right to vote.”

Barker said the use of the term was not meant to denigrate teachers. “I just used a general term for somebody who’s constantly posting negative messages,” he said.

Barker said the amount of money the KNEA has spent on the election makes the union fair game to attack. The KNEA gave $120,000 to the Kansas Values Institute, an organization that is backing Democrat Paul Davis in the governor’s race, as of the union’s July campaign finance filing.

“I think the Republican Party really appreciates and values teachers, but it’s the union’s leadership that keeps trying to provoke fights,” he said. “It’s nothing about 99 percent of the teachers who are just great.”

Barker noted that his own children attend public school.

He said that a small number of KNEA members routinely criticized Republicans on Twitter and Facebook and that his e-mail was meant to give party members an example of how to respond.

“There must be some people who don’t have much of a life and just sit on social media and blast people,” Barker said. “We like open debate on things but some people take it to absurd lengths.”

Baltzell pointed out that the reference to KNEA members as “trolls” comes after comments House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, made in June about how too many “red shirts” in the Capitol make him uncomfortable.

KNEA members wore red shirts when they protested the education bill in April. Merrick’s spokeswoman later said the comment was a flubbed reference to the British Army.

“Is the Governor and the party he represents really comfortable with the inference that thousands of KS kids go to school each day and are taught by dedicated professionals worthy of this kind of insult?” Baltzell wrote.

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

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