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Two Kansas substitutes spoke out at school board meetings and got fired. Now they're suing

Vera Daniels and Celeste Hoins, substitute teachers in the Lansing school district near Kansas City, are suing the district. They say they were fired for speaking out against school district policies.

WICHITA, Kansas — A pair of substitute teachers is suing the Lansing school district near Kansas City, alleging they were barred from working as subs because they spoke out against school policies.

Vera Daniels and Celeste Hoins claim in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, that Lansing school board members violated their First Amendment right to free speech.

The Lansing superintendent, school board president and vice-president could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Over the past year, Daniels and Hoins addressed the board several times during the public forum portion of its regular meetings. They advocated for higher teacher salaries and building improvements and against the district’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, according to the lawsuit.

At a board meeting last August, the teachers spoke about what they said was the board’s lack of transparency, book banning, and “the need for the school district to help non-white students feel welcome,” the lawsuit says.

They also urged board members to exceed the district’s so-called “revenue neutral” tax rate, which would allow schools to collect more money from higher property valuations.

After a closed-door session during that meeting, the board removed Daniels and Hoins from a list of approved substitute teachers and barred them from working in the district.

Arthur Benson, the teachers’ attorney, said their firing was unconstitutional, and that the board — led at the time by a conservative majority — retaliated against the teachers for voicing their opinions.

“They had both been outstanding teachers and in great demand as substitute teachers,” Benson said.

“Because their speech did not in any way interfere with the educational mission of the school district, they were protected by the First Amendment, in our view, and we filed suit.”

The women want to be reinstated as substitutes, Benson said. They are also seeking lost earnings, damages and their costs for litigation.

Daniels, a retired middle-school science teacher, was named Secondary Teacher of the Year for the Lansing district in 2020. She retired from full-time teaching in June 2021 and began substitute teaching in September 2022.

Hoins received her license to substitute teach in Kansas in 2017. She was “requested to substitute repeatedly by teachers and administrators for whom she had previously served as a substitute teacher,” the lawsuit says.

Neither teacher ever received negative comments on job evaluations, the lawsuit says.

Teachers’ free speech rights have been the topic of lawsuits throughout the U.S., particularly as schools become a battleground for the nation’s political and culture wars.

Last spring, a judge dismissed a lawsuit by two Oregon teachers who were fired after launching a video campaign opposing their district’s gender identity policies. Citing the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Pickering v. Board of Education, the district court ruled that the school’s interest in “protecting the safety and well-being of its students” outweighed the teachers’ First Amendment right to comment on school policies.

In September, a teacher in Wisconsin filed suit after being fired for publicly criticizing her school district’s decision to ban the song “Rainbowland” from an elementary school concert.

In Lansing, a district of about 2,500 students northwest of Kansas City, a conservative board majority elected in 2021 instituted several new policies, including removing a social justice unit from a high school English course.

Lansing board member Amy Cawvey told Fox News in 2021 that she and other conservative candidates won the election by opposing critical race theory in schools.

Since then, community support for those policies has waned, and voters installed a more moderate majority in November.

One of the newly elected board members is Kerry Brungardt, a former principal who hired Daniels to teach at Lansing Middle School in 2012.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.