Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers seek data on school board members related to district employees

The Wichita Eagle

Kansas lawmakers are seeking information on the number of school board members across the state with spouses or relatives working for school districts.

The Kansas Legislative Research Department sent out a survey to school board members throughout the state on Friday asking them to answer whether they or any of their relatives work for school districts or the Kansas Department of Education.

The request for this information came initially from the Legislature’s Special Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government, according to researcher Martha Dorsey, who explained that the committee would be reviewing the impact of HB 2345 “if it passed in its current form.”

The bill, which was introduced during the past session, would restrict a person from serving on a local school board if his or her spouse, parent or sibling worked for any school district in the state. The bill sparked backlash from educators and school board members when it received a hearing early this year and was quickly tabled.

“For some reason, they think that teachers are the most powerful people in the world – I don’t know – controlling the government or something,” said Mark Desetti, legislative director of the Kansas National Education Association.

If the bill passed, he said, “half the school board members … would be ineligible to be on a school board. This idea that if your parents were teachers, your siblings, your kids and it doesn’t even have to be in your district (you can’t serve on the school board) … this is just absurd.”

Desetti called the legislation “patently offensive” and said it would make it impossible to fill school board seats, particularly in rural areas.

Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, who chairs the special committee, said in an e-mail Monday night he thinks that if there is a perceived or a real problem with conflicts of interest, “we should at least quantify the number of board members affected by HB 2345 in its current form.”

“The Legislature should also look closely at the way ‘conflict of interest’ is defined in the bill,” he wrote in the e-mail. “Are all the situations defined in the bill really a conflict? If not all are true conflicts, are some of them genuine? If there are some genuine conflicts of interest, is a prohibition to serve on a Board the correct solution? Or would something else, like requiring recusal from certain subject matter, be appropriate?

“The purpose for the committee is to research what the current situation is, and what, if any, action should the committee recommend to the Legislature. We’re on a fact-finding mission first. Then, second, on a brainstorming mission if the facts warrant.”

Last session, Holmes sent out an e-mail about another bill, decrying the influence of the teachers union on local school boards.

The bill, in its current form, also would restrict people who conduct business with school districts from serving on their local school boards.

Lynn Rogers, a member of the Wichita school board, said that unless the bill is changed significantly, “there’s hardly a businessman on main street” who wouldn’t be disqualified by this restriction.

Rogers, who works in banking, explained that he recuses himself when the Wichita school district makes decisions about buying fuel from a co-op that works with his bank, to avoid any conflict of interest.

When the bill was reviewed by the House Education Committee earlier this year, only one person spoke in favor of it: Chris Brown, a tea party activist who had mounted an unsuccessful bid for the Legislature in 2014.

Dozens of educators and school board members from around the state spoke out against the bill, including Rogers, who is now mounting a campaign for the Kansas Senate as a Democrat. “It’s really sad to think that they’re bringing it back to life,” he said.

The survey asks school board members to mark if any of the following applies to them:

▪ I am employed by a (any) Kansas school district.

▪ I am employed by the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE).

▪ My spouse, sibling or parent is employed by a (any) Kansas school district.

▪ My spouse, sibling or parent is employed by KSDE.

▪ I reside in a home where an employee of any Kansas school district or the KSDE also resides.

▪ I have a substantial interest in a business that works directly with or provides services to the State of Kansas or my own school district of residence.

The survey results will be anonymous.

Teachers are already restricted from serving on the school board in the district where they work but are not prevented from serving on another school board. A teacher who works for the Maize school district, for example, could serve on the Wichita school board, if that’s where he or she lived.

HB 2345 would prevent that teacher from serving on any school board in the state. It would also mean that a resident of Wichita couldn’t serve on the local school board if her sibling was a teacher in Johnson County.

Tom Krebs, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said his organization was encouraging school board members to fill out the survey. He said that lawmakers’ concerns about potential conflicts of interest if school board members are married or related to educators are overblown and that the association advises members to withdraw themselves from decisions if a conflict of interest arises.

“What if you asked the Legislature to impose a similar sort of (restriction) that you can’t serve as a legislator if any of your family – and we’re talking husband, wives, children, in-laws – had any business to do with the state?” Krebs said.

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