Classified workers at Kansas University have voted in favor of leaving the state's civil service system, likely sparking a statewide debate over who best controls university employees' pay and benefits.
The vote, tallied Wednesday, was 623 workers in favor of creating a new employee system at KU, and 532 in favor of staying in the state system.
This was the second balloting on the issue this year. The first vote, in May, ended in a 545-545 tie.
"I'm pleasantly surprised," said Kathy Jansen, president of the Classified Senate. "I'm happy to see the 91-vote margin. It gives a pretty clear indication (of staff opinion)."
About 80 percent of KU's 1,450 classified employees voted in the election, up from 74 percent in May.
Proponents of the new system have said seceding from the classified system could allow KU administrators to provide larger pay increases than the state currently does, while keeping current benefits.
Opponents said the civil service system offered more job stability than a KU-administered system. They also said there's no guarantee of additional money.
KU classified employees work as secretaries, janitors and maintenance workers. Their pay raises have been set by the Legislature along with other state employees and they have generally fared less well than unclassified KU workers whose pay is determined by university administration.
Wednesday's vote is only the first step in what may be a long process.
Ola Faucher, KU's director of human resources, said that in the next few months administrators would request that the Kansas Board of Regents present legislation allowing universities to opt out of civil service.
"We're talking about requesting enabling language that is permissive," Faucher said. "We don't want to force other universities."
But regents or legislators may decide to require all universities to leave civil service, or to drop the proposal for a new system entirely.
Faucher said she didn't know whether the legislation would be ready by the start of the 2004 legislative session, which begins in January. The earliest the new system could go in effect is July 2005.
Reggie Robinson, president and CEO of the board of regents, said he wasn't sure what the process would be at the regents level.
"I don't have a sense of where they are in terms of their support for moving forward along the lines that KU suggests," he said. "We will be working, at this level, of getting a sense of where people are and what position we want to take as this unfolds."
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius also said she wasn't sure of her stance.
"I haven't seen the specifics of their vote," she said. "I assume that part of what they want is additional resources. I'm not quite sure how choosing an alternative route gets them additional resources, but I really need to look at the proposal."
KU's vote likely will spark discussion across the state about civil service.
At least one other university's classified senate already has shown interest in withdrawing from the state system. Ellen Abbey, president of the Wichita State Classified Senate, said her group was investigating the possibility and would send out a survey gauging support in the upcoming weeks.
"Pulling out of state civil service gets us closer to where the paycheck is," she said. "That way the people who give us the money have to look at us every day. There's such a space between us and the legislators."
But Andy Sanchez, executive director of the Kansas Association of Public Employees, said his group planned to oppose any movement away from civil service.
"You have protections and accountability, and a system where people can be treated fairly," he said. "It's a concern of ours, that this could expand to a statewide proposal."
The Pro-Civil Service Coalition, a KU group that fought the proposal for a new system, also plans to continue its opposition, despite the vote.
"I still think this is a bad deal, and I'm hoping the board of regents will find it in themselves to deny this sort of thing," said Kathy Coffey, the coalition's co-coordinator. "If they knock the civil service regulations from the whole thing, that leaves the university accountable to who exactly in their decision-making? Who decides if they're dealing with us in a fair and unbiased manner?"
Jansen, the Classified Senate president, said she hoped the time before the proposal could go in effect -- at least 21 months -- would help ease tensions on an issue that has divided classified staff.
"It's the beginning of a good process, I think," she said. "But it's just the beginning. The time that will elapse before this would finally happen is going to give the campus a very good time and chance to heal."
Staff writer Scott Rothschild contributed information to this report.