Politics & Government

House, Senate OK school finance bill that eliminates due process for teachers

Kansas teachers fill the House gallery.
Kansas teachers fill the House gallery. The Wichita Eagle

A bill that allocates millions more to schools but also strips teachers of a protection they have had since 1957 will head to the governor’s desk.

Both the House and Senate passed compromise bill HB2506 at the tail end of a marathon work weekend.

The House voted 63-57. The Senate voted 22-16.

The bill would put $129 million toward addressing inequities to satisfy a March 7 Kansas Supreme Court ruling.

It also would eliminate public school teachers’ right to due process hearings that was established by a 1957 Supreme Court case. And it would provide tax breaks for corporations that donate to scholarships for private schools.

The House began its debate around 9 p.m. and concluded in less than hour; the previous night’s debate lasted into the early hours of the morning.

It came after a Republican caucus meeting in which Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, emphasized that a “no” vote could mean that schools would lose all of their local option budget money, or money based on local property taxes. A district court could halt that spending if the Legislature did not address inequities by July 1.

Kleeb said that would be throwing away half a billion dollars in investment for schools and warned it could result in teacher layoffs.

Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, a former principal, also tried to allay the fears of House members concerned about eliminating due process protections for teachers. He said that as a principal, he had been stymied in firing bad teachers.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, told his members, “This is it. Let’s go do it.”

And within about an hour, they had, narrowly passing the bill.

Rep. Jack Thimesch, R-Cunningham, whose wife died earlier in the week, returned to the Legislature to be the deciding vote.

Gov. Sam Brownback released a short statement minutes after the House passage. He touted the extra money that would be headed to schools but did not address the issue of teacher due process.

“The school finance bill passed by the Kansas Legislature today fully complies with, and indeed exceeds, the requirements of the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling for funding schools and providing equity,” Brownback said.

“The bill ensures that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently, putting money in the classrooms to help teachers teach and students learn,” he said.

Before the vote, one group of teachers posted notes on the governor’s ceremonial office door, demanding to know where the governor was.

“We’re asking him since he’s touting his record on education, and he’s been absent over the last few days while our teachers have been here till 4 in the morning and continue to come; we’re asking him where is he,” said Marcus Baltzell, spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association.

Questions of transparency

The votes came as teachers packed the galleries and implored lawmakers to vote no.

Senate passage came with accusations – from both Democrats and some Republicans – of a lack of transparency.

Debate on the bill was still ongoing when Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, invoked a Senate rule to force a vote, citing exhaustion throughout the Legislature after several late nights of wrangling over education policy.

The vote came one day after the Senate unanimously approved a bill designed to increase transparency at the Legislature by setting up live streaming of committee hearings.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, questioned why the bill contains provisions that were never vetted in committee hearings in the Senate. He said no amount of cameras would resolve this lack of transparency.

“At the end of the day, who really wants these policy pieces?” he asked.

The Capitol has been filled with public school teachers for two days. They called on legislators to drop the controversial reforms and pass a bipartisan bill like the one the House had passed on Friday.

Holland said he did not see the same kind of passion from Kansans calling on the Legislature to eliminate hearings for teachers before they can be fired. The Kansas Association of School Boards estimates that only about 10 such hearings occur a year.

The KNEA has said the purpose of the due process hearings is not to keep bad teachers in the classroom but to make sure teachers cannot be dismissed without cause.

One of the organizations calling for the reform was Americans for Prosperity.

Jeff Glendening, state director for the organization, said it would ensure that every Kansas classroom is led by a capable teacher, and that would benefit children across the state.

Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, said that eliminating the hearings, which some Republicans say is equivalent to removing tenure, would help remove underperforming teachers from the classroom.

But not all Republicans agreed with Arpke.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, asked his colleagues to think of what the morning headlines would say. He said he did not want them to say that the Republican-dominated Senate had passed radical reforms instead of a court-ordered fix to make school funding more equitable.

And some criticized cutting off debate.

Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, delivered a blistering speech to Senate leadership about how he had waited all day for his chance to speak, but the debate was cut off early before all members had a chance to do so. “Just because somebody’s tired?” he asked.

He said he was disgusted and voted no. Pyle was the author of one of the conservative policies stripped from the bill after the House voted it down, a proposal to grant property tax breaks to families who educate their children at home or in private schools.

Pyle moved that the Senate postpone the vote and continue debate Monday morning. But Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who serves as rules chairman, determined that the motion was out of order.

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, asked King, “What kind of democracy do you live in?”

Haley said this was the most important issue to the people of Kansas, and the Legislature should not act hastily.

Senate leaders dismissed the claims that they had acted undemocratically.

“The rules of the Senate have been in existence for a long time,” King said. He said the rule to force a debate has been in the Senate since the 19th century.

“The rule has been used in the past. It’s part of the democratic process to make sure that the free flow of ideas occurred but debate also occurs in a timely fashion,” King said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said assertions from Democrats that the bill had been loaded with unvetted policy were a political tactic.

“All legislators do the same thing. I’ve served in the minority party. I know what it feels like to get run over by the majority, and sometimes allegations are made just because they lost,” she said.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who led negotiations for the Senate, was not in the building, having left for an already scheduled vacation with his wife. Wagle took his place on the conference committee.

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, was also not present, having returned to Wichita for a medical procedure on Monday.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, moved for a call of the Senate, which would prevent the Senate from closing on the bill until all members are located.

The rule allows the Senate president to determine whether sufficient effort has been made to locate a missing senator. Wagle determined that neither Masterson nor Donovan could be reached.

Question about meeting

As the Senate debate started, Hensley questioned whether a meeting between House and Senate conferees around 4 a.m. – after the majority of the public, media and legislators left the building – violated the state’s open meetings law. He announced he would ask Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor to investigate.

At an afternoon conference meeting, Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the secretary of the Senate had posted the meeting.

But the secretary did not post the meeting, and no announcement was made on the Senate floor.

Hensley confronted Denning and Wagle about the matter.

Wagle took responsibility for misinforming Denning. She blamed the mistake on late nights and said that should not overshadow the issue at hand, addressing school finance.

King said that because the House had announced the meeting, it was open and the bill could not be invalidated under Senate rules.

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