School districts say new school finance bill will widen disparities

? The Legislature’s new school finance bill will continue to widen the funding gap between wealthy and poor districts, attorneys representing school districts that successfully sued the state said Monday.

Meanwhile, teachers continued to raise alarms about a provision in the bill that does away with tenure.

Republicans passed the $129 million plan, saying it would address a Kansas Supreme Court order to increase funding to poor districts.

John Robb, general counsel for Schools for Fair Funding, said the plan does the opposite, shifting money from programs aimed at helping students who are at-risk of failing and allowing wealthy districts to raise local property taxes.

“Many other districts will not be able to raise additional tax revenue for schools. Increasing the local option budget widens the gap between rich and poor districts in a bill designed to cure inequity,” the statement from Schools for Fair Funding said. The group represents parents and districts that filed the school finance lawsuit against the state.

Lawrence public school officials were studying the bill to see how the district would fare.

“It would be unlikely” that there would be much increase in funding, Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said.

Doll said the removal of due process for teachers also posed numerous legal issues and questions.

Would it apply to all teachers or just those who haven’t gotten tenure yet and can school boards include due process rights in annual contracts with teachers?. “It is more complicated than people think,” he said.

Conservative legislators insisted that the school finance bill remove tenure because they say the process of firing an incompetent teacher takes too long and in the meantime students suffer.

Under current law, after three years on the job, a teacher who’s facing dismissal must be told why in writing and has the right to challenge the decision and have a hearing officer review the case.

State Rep. Ward Cassidy, a Republican from St. Francis and a former school superintendent, said it once took him two years to try to get rid of an incompetent teacher.

He described how the teacher hired a lawyer and at their first meeting, Cassidy provided 68 documents that showed problems with the teacher, but since 46 of those documents provided no recommendations on how that teacher could improve, they were pulled from the complaint, he said. Cassidy said the teacher eventually quit.

Supporters of tenure say it protects teachers from arbitrary or discriminatory firings based on factors such as gender, nationality or political beliefs. They also say it allows teachers to advocate on behalf of students even if that means going against the school administration.

Mark Desetti, a lobbyist with the Kansas National Education Association, said when he was a teacher he fought the school district for months to have a student tested to receive special education services.

“My constant badgering forced the district to relent. She was tested and qualified for services which were finally provided,” he said.

Under the new rules, he said, he could have been fired and the student would not have received the help she needed.

After passage of the bill, Gov. Sam Brownback indicated he would sign it into law, saying the bill complies with the court order, increases funding and provides property tax relief.

His statement made no mention of the tenure repeal.

Conversely, his likely Democratic opponent in the November election, House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence, focused on the teacher tenure issue.

“This is a disappointing and sad day for public education in Kansas,” Davis said. “Despite the additional funding included in the bill that passed tonight (Sunday), a clear attack was made on the tens of thousands of Kansas teachers that help our kids learn each and every day,” he said.