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Feeling barraged by Kansas lawmakers, educators go after seats in Legislature

Abigail Wilson

From the Kansas Health Institute:

To say that many educators in Kansas are fed up with state lawmakers would be an understatement. The Legislature has been putting a tighter and tighter squeeze on public schools in recent years. This election season, educators are trying to send some legislators packing.

The Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) estimates that across the state, roughly 50 current and former school board members, administrators and teachers are candidates in legislative elections.

In western Kansas, Stafford USD 349 Superintendent Mary Jo Taylor is running for Senate. On the other side of the state in Johnson County, retired special education teacher Vicki Hiatt is vying for a Senate seat, and English teacher Brett Parker hopes to get a seat in the House. South of Wichita, KASB President Don Shimkus is gunning for the seat left vacant by Senate Education Committee Chair Steve Abrams, who withdrew from the election just before the deadline.

In Wichita, Democrat Lynn Rogers has been campaigning for Senate District 25 since August of last year. After serving on the Wichita school board for 16 years, he’s frustrated with legislators he says act as rubber stamps for Gov. Sam Brownback. Rogers said the block grant funding system passed by incumbent legislators assumes all children have the same needs. And he’s sick of hearing the repeated talking points about top-heavy administration.

A huge part of the support for Rogers’ campaign has come from area educators and parents. He estimated that more than 150 people with education ties have helped him spread his message, knocking on doors or handing out fliers.

Changing climate

Linda Zehr, who recently retired from a 30-year career as a teacher in Wichita’s public school district, is one of them. With her long hair tied back in a low ponytail and a clipboard in her hand, she walked with Rogers through her west Wichita neighborhood, introducing him to her neighbors. Zehr said she has been politically active before, but never to the extent of going door-to-door for a candidate.

Zehr said decisions made at the state level left her with an increasing number of duties and a frozen salary for at least eight years. Her daughter is still a kindergarten teacher in Wichita. “She said to me the other day, ‘Mom, how did you do this for 30 years?’”

Zehr told her daughter there was a supportive climate for teachers in the first 25 years of her career. “This last four or five years is when it really has become a battle against public education in many respects.”

Zehr said recent moves by state lawmakers have threatened public education in ways she had never seen before. The Legislature eliminated guaranteed tenure and attempted to limit what teachers can negotiate for in their contracts. There also has been a push to use public money for private schools.

Senate candidate Lynn Rogers said part of the problem is that school boards, like the one he’s been serving on, are partly to blame. He said board members have done such a good job of shielding parents and students from the effects of state cuts to public education that few noticed how deep the cuts were. And as long as those cuts were hidden, no one was questioning their legislators.

So now Rogers is knocking on doors, telling anyone who will listen that the cuts are not over and it’s to a point now that they’re really going to hurt.

The Wichita school district was forced to reduce expenditures for the upcoming school year by $22 million because of flat funding from the state. In order to save money, the teachers in the district agreed to lengthen the school day and shorten the overall school year. Rogers said those moves, along with the possibility of outsourcing custodial staff and eliminating elementary and middle school librarians, finally caught people’s attention.

“So people are seeing the impact, either fewer bus routes, different start times for their kids or in some cases fewer schools if we’ve had to close schools,” Rogers said.

‘This little Band-Aid’

Although the Legislature did avert a statewide shutdown of public schools at the end of June threatened by the Kansas Supreme Court, educators running for office say the last-minute fix doesn’t change anything.

Kim Palcic, a third-grade teacher from Olathe, is a candidate for House District 15.

“We need every student to have the best possible education and I don’t think this little Band-Aid is going to help us,” Palcic said. “It will work for this year. The schools will open, and that’s what’s important. But it’s not enough.”

However hard it was for lawmakers to come up with the money to resolve inequities between school districts and avoid the shutdown, satisfying the Supreme Court on adequacy will be harder. And no matter what, the Legislature will have to come up with a new funding formula.

This year’s legislative elections will determine whether it’s going to be a formula that educators like or a formula that the conservatives – with whom teachers are at odds – will get behind.

— Abigail Wilson is a reporter for KMUW, a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. 

The nonprofit KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor reporting collaboration. All stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org when a story is reposted online.