Kan. lawmakers mull changing school bargaining law

John Hanna, AP Political Writer
Kan. lawmakers mull changing school bargaining law

Karen Godfrey, president of the Kansas National Education Association, criticizes legislation that would rewrite the state's law on bargaining between teachers and school boards during a Statehouse news conference in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- The largest teachers union in Kansas is warning of a "war" on educators as the Republican-dominated Legislature considers a proposal that would narrow contract negotiations between teachers and public school districts.

The proposal, which is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, would reduce the number of issues that teachers' groups could negotiate with local school boards. For example, teachers would still be able to negotiate such things as pay and sick leave, but no longer on how they are evaluated.

Supporters of the legislation recently asked for suggestions from the union after a backlash and have slowed the measure's progress, but they are still determined to reduce teachers' bargaining rights, said Karen Godfrey, president of the 25,000-member Kansas National Education Association.

"This bill, as it's written, is incredibly harmful to the way we operate now in school districts," Godfrey told The Associated Press on Monday, a few days after she issued a scathing analysis of the legislation and called it part of a "war on teachers in Kansas."

The bill will be reviewed Wednesday in the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee.

The committee's chairman, conservative Overland Park Republican Rep. Marvin Kleeb, said he's open to suggestions for changes from all parties. Kleeb said the bill's backers hope to encourage innovation in public schools by giving local districts more operational flexibility.

Groups representing school boards and superintendents — past allies of the KNEA in education funding issues — are backing efforts to rewrite the bargaining law. Also, a task force appointed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback recommended changes in January, saying rewriting the law would help local boards "determine what works best locally to drive efficiencies."

The KNEA stepped up criticism last week when the bill emerged from Kleeb's committee, and a few members of local school boards who oppose the bill joined the union during a news conference Monday. The teachers union contends there's no real need to change the bargaining law and believes some backers of the bill want to weaken the KNEA, which is one of the most vocal critics of Brownback and his allies.

Kleeb said he's disappointed in the KNEA's reaction, saying its criticism is overblown. He noted that groups representing superintendents and school boards have been interested in rewriting the law for years, though with Democratic governors and less conservative lawmakers, the idea hasn't gotten much traction.

Kleeb said any changes proposed by the teachers union would be considered. But, he added: "I think I'm going to be surprised if they want to make anything work. ... They really seem to be taking a hard line."

KNEA and its allies see no other option but a hard line. Kleeb's committee crafted the measure after the House approved a separate bill to prohibit KNEA and other public employee unions from automatically deducting union dues from members' paychecks to finance political activities.

The bargaining bill would limit the issues that must be negotiated to pay, holidays, sick leave, personal leave and the hours teachers work outside their classes. School boards could still opt to negotiate over other issues affecting teachers' duties, but that list would not include how teachers are evaluated or how many classes they must teach each day.

Kansas has about 34,400 full-time teachers in its public schools, according to the state Department of Education. Teachers are not allowed to strike under Kansas law.

Late last week, Godfrey called the bill's consideration "a pivotal moment in Kansas history" and issued a statement under the headline, "There is a war on teachers in Kansas."

She also said the KNEA was surprised and disappointed by support for the bill from some school superintendents and the Kansas Association of School Boards. They worked with the bill's supporters before Kleeb's committee endorsed a version last week. House GOP leaders routed it back to committee for another hearing as protests intensified.

"We as Kansans are going to have to decide whether we are going to embrace democracy, collaboration, openness, or whether we're going to accept the sham of democracy or the silencing of dissenting voices," Godfrey said during a news conference late last week. "We will not compromise in our advocacy for quality public schools for every child."

But Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the school boards association, said the group always has felt that the bargaining law "went too far" and has wanted to give boards more flexibility for years.

"What's changed is the Legislature is more interested in dealing with them," Tallman said.

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The bargaining bill is Sub for HB 2027.

Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

Kansas National Education Association: http://www.knea.org/

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna