Lawrence public schools in wait-and-see approach on proposed reform to background checks
photo by: Journal-World
Updated at 11:06 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 16
Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach recently endorsed a report from the state’s Medicaid inspector general that could serve as a basis for increased scrutiny into the backgrounds of Kansas public school employees.
Kobach said on Nov. 1 that he wanted a law passed mandating that all public school employees undergo fingerprint-based criminal background checks on a five-year cycle. Currently, the Kansas State Department of Education requires background checks for licensed staff when they first apply for a license and nothing afterward unless the license lapses.
Lawrence school board President Kelly Jones told the Journal-World on Tuesday that she could “see on the surface” that there are valid student safety concerns, but she characterized Kobach’s endorsement of the report as “problematic.” The Lawrence school district is one of the city’s largest employers, with 1,536 people on staff, according to school district spokesperson Julie Boyle.
“I’m concerned that there may be costs for the district for an issue that KSDE has not flagged as a priority,” Jones said.
According to the report from Steven Anderson, the state’s Medicaid inspector general, the cyclical background check proposal would extend to all public school employees statewide. Anderson also recommended that Kansas school districts “immediately confirm that all employees, regardless of role, have current background investigations on file.”
In another portion of the report, Anderson recommended that similar checks be administered on contractors who deliver Medicaid services to public school students. According to the report, an audit conducted by Anderson’s office showed that around 31% of more than 3,700 Medicaid providers in Kansas do not have a background check on file. Anderson’s recommendations, however, do not apply to private school employees.
Boyle said that the district’s certified educators — such as teachers, counselors and media specialists — are subject to a $50 out-of-pocket fee for the fingerprinting process.
“They can do it with the district or submit the fingerprints through a local police station,” Boyle said, adding that the process is administered by KSDE.
Boyle added that newly hired classified staff — a category that includes custodians, office staff and other employees who aren’t teachers — are subject to either the fingerprint process or submission of a background check conducted by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, depending on how long they have resided in the state. According to Boyle, if a classified employee has lived in Kansas for 10 consecutive years or more, then the district conducts a KBI background check at a cost of $20, paid by the district. If they have not resided in Kansas for the past 10 years, then they are fingerprinted and assessed a $47 fee, which is also paid by the district.
According to information provided by the district’s human resources department, the district spent $2,209 on background checks for the 2023 fiscal year and $3,525 the year prior. The district has thus far outpaced those numbers, having spent $1,316 on background checks during the first two months of the 2024 fiscal year, which Boyle said could be attributed to an increase in classified staff hires.
Boyle added that the district is in a wait-and-see approach and that it would rely on guidance from KSDE and the Kansas Association of School Boards for any revisions or adoption of policies and procedures related to background check reform.
“Lawrence Public Schools shares the goal of ensuring that only the best teachers and staff are hired to work with our scholars,” she said. “There is nothing more important to us than the safety of students and staff. The hiring policies and procedures the district has in place support these priorities.”
Jones said that she wants input from the Kansas National Education Association, as well as from the unions that represent the district’s certified and classified staff, adding that she is “skeptical about anything” proposed by Kobach.
“He is frequently making an issue when there isn’t one for his own political gain,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of staff employed by the Lawrence school district after recent reductions.