Politics & Government

Kansas Supreme Court to hear teachers union lawsuit

Heights Teacher Shari Hatfield, left, shows Advanced Placement chemistry student Cheyenne Goodman some issues with an experiment earlier this month.
Heights Teacher Shari Hatfield, left, shows Advanced Placement chemistry student Cheyenne Goodman some issues with an experiment earlier this month. The Wichita Eagle

The state’s highest court on Tuesday will weigh whether the Legislature violated the Kansas Constitution when it eliminated a job protection for teachers in 2014.

The Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, contends in a lawsuit that lawmakers violated the constitution’s “one subject rule” when it combined a school funding bill with a provision to eliminate a statewide requirement that public school teachers be granted administrative hearings before they can be fired if they have worked in a district for three or more years.

A Shawnee County judge rejected this argument in 2015 and dismissed the association’s lawsuit. The Kansas Supreme Court will hear the union’s appeal.

David Schauner, the association’s general counsel, said “there’s no genuine relationship” between funding schools and stripping teachers of administrative due process, a provision that was added to the bill as a floor amendment during a late-night session.

“There was never a hearing on the due process change. … There was no opportunity for input from the public,” Schauner said. He called it “classic log-rolling.”

Lawmakers who support the policy change say eliminating the state mandate has increased local control by putting the issue in the hands of local school boards.

“We want a quality teacher in every classroom, and tenure sometimes protects teachers who I don’t think most people agree with,” said Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center.

“If there’s a teacher that’s just for whatever reason not doing the job, you know, they shouldn’t be protected by tenure, and the local school board needs to make the decision on how to get the best possible teacher in the classroom,” Huebert said.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said in an e-mail that “school districts should have the local authority to negotiate tenure, because bad teachers should not be in classrooms.”

Some school districts, including Wichita, have continued to guarantee hearings for teachers since the law went into effect.

But the majority of districts have dropped the protection, according to Schauner. He also is the attorney in a separate case in which a Wyandotte County teacher is suing the Kansas City, Kan., school district for firing her without a hearing.

Schauner contends that teachers who earned the right to administrative hearings before the 2014 law are still entitled to that protection and that the law – if upheld – can be applied only for teachers who started after that year.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said if the association prevails in arguing that the bill violates the one-subject rule, it could help deter the Legislature from bundling bills together in the future.

“I hope they win. I think we stuff too many things into conference committee reports and into bills, and I think it would be a very useful tool if the court lays some guidelines down about the one-subject rule,” Ward said.

House Republicans have supported the campaign to oust four of the court’s justices who are up for retention this fall, while the association has backed efforts to retain the justices. Schauner said he didn’t think the union’s support of retention would affect the case.

“I’ve never seen them play favorites. … I think they’ll decide the case based on what the law is,” he said.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3