Republican lawmaker, leery of rivalry with Kansas public schools, launches conversation
Rep. Adam Thomas, a Republican from Olathe, leads a roundtable discussion March 9, 2023, with school board members from communities around the state. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Rep. Adam Thomas compares the relationship between state lawmakers and public schools to the legendary baseball rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
He puts it mildly: Traditionally, they don’t get along.
Thomas, an Olathe Republican, hopes to defuse tensions over education policy by starting a conversation. On Thursday, he invited school board members from Wichita, Olathe, Dodge City, Goodland, Labette and Bucklin to participate in a roundtable discussion with lawmakers about issues affecting local schools, and what they need from legislators.
“That’s what I’ve heard from a lot of the folks that I talked to that serve on school boards, or superintendents: ‘You guys don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to you,’ ” Thomas said in an interview following the discussion. “And so we’re left with simple interpretations of some of the things we do and the things they do. So I think this is a big step in the right direction.”
School board members addressed a wide range of topics, including teacher pay, special education funding, poverty, English language learners, recruitment, unfilled positions, efforts to divert funding to private schools and public perception.
Absent from the nearly two-hour conversation: Any mention of efforts to indoctrinate children in the “radical woke agenda,” the Republicans’ rhetorical flavor of the year for attacking public school teachers.
In the interview, Thomas said there is “proof” that some teachers have gone “off script,” but he said those issue should be handled privately.
“This robust discussion, we’re trying to build relationships to say, ‘Hey, how many of your teachers are going off script and teaching away from curriculum?’ ” Thomas said. “This is a place to start the conversation, but we know it’s happening.”
During the hearing, Thomas asked the school board members: “What do you need from us?”
Kevin Cole, a school board member from Labette, represents a district of about 1,500 students about 20 miles from the Oklahoma border. The starting pay for teachers there is $40,500, and paraprofessionals — “our frontline workers” — earn $11 an hour. The district has unfilled positions, and several teachers are preparing to retire.
“Money helps,” he said, but “money doesn’t fix everything.”
“I think another thing is just perception from our elected leaders that they value public education,” Cole said.
Brad Bergsma, a Goodland school board member, raised concerns about a proposal from Republican lawmakers that would allow parents who homeschool or send their kids to private school to create education savings accounts with tax dollars that would otherwise go to public schools.
An early version of the ESA program was expected to cost about $150 million annually, with $135 million going to students already enrolled in private schools. Families would receive about $5,000 per student outside of public schools.
“The ESA program, as it is written this year, will be extremely detrimental to rural schools,” Bergsma said. “In a district of our size, roughly 1,000 students, it would only take one or two families to pull a teacher out of the classroom. When we lose a handful of kids here and there, to home school or private schools, that really has a significant impact on what happens in our day-to-day business.”
Republicans in another committee placed the ESA program, special education funding and other policies into Senate Bill 83, which initially offered a tax credit for students attending private schools. The House has not yet voted on the bundle.
The bill would require each district to increase teacher salaries for the upcoming school year, a provision tied to a $72 million increase in special education funding.
“Let’s say that, my, I don’t know, hypothetically, the state mandates that you have to give your teachers every year, without any additional funds, a salary increase, and that is mandated in law, or you don’t get special education funding. How do we feel about that?” asked Rep. Kirk Haskins, a Topeka Democrat.
Bergsma agreed to answer, “since we’re speaking hypothetically, I guess.”
“Certainly, you’re not going to find any school board member across the state of Kansas that says, we’re paying our teachers too much,” Bergsma said. “You only need to step into a classroom for a day and experience what our teaching staff live through on a daily basis to understand that we have some truly special and gifted people in all of our buildings across the state.”
Celebrate the good
Hazel Stabler represents the Wichita school district, the largest in the state with 48,000 students, 9,000 employees and a yearly budget approaching a billion dollars.
Stabler told lawmakers she spends 30-35 hours per week visiting the 19 schools in her district. She talks to teachers, parents and principals, attends awards, and has lunch with children. Her goals are to be visible and create trust in the community.
Her concern for lawmakers: There is too much focus on bad things happening in schools.
“I would really encourage you, as representatives for your cities, to be a regular visitor, to celebrate the good things that are happening in our schools, and celebrate our teachers that are sticking in there with us and helping us get to the end of the line,” Stabler said.
Brian Connell, an Olathe school board member, said his district is trying to increase the base pay for teachers from $42,000 to $46,000.
“I’m gonna go on the record because I want to call it out,” he said, on the topic of teacher salaries. “They’re woefully inadequate across the state”
Connell said his mother-in-law taught in Manhattan for 30 years with a master’s degree and never made $50,000.
“It’s not always about the pay, but then that’s where you start every conversation,” Connell said.
The Bucklin school district faces challenges beyond pay when recruiting teachers, said school board member Sandy Halling.
The town of Bucklin, population 727, is southeast of Dodge City in southwest Kansas. Of the district’s 235 students, 55% qualify for free or reduced meals, Halling said. The district has seen an increase in special education students and English language learners.
Halling said the district in recent years was able to reach a base salary for teachers of $40,000.
“What we are paying now is still difficult primarily because we have a lack of housing, we don’t have a grocery store, child care availability is extremely low,” Halling said. “And so if you have teachers wanting to come to your community, but they can’t find a place to live or there’s no place for them to take their child to a babysitter, it’s hard to attract. Our community needs go hand in hand sometimes with our needs at our school.”
English language learners
Ryan Ausmus, a school board member from Dodge City, said the district’s 7,200 kids represent 45 countries and speak 20 different languages.
About half of the students speak a language other than English at home, Ausmus said. About 70% of the students are Latino, and Spanish is the predominant language, he said.
“Even my own wife is from Mexico. Spanish is spoken in my home. My children are bilingual,” Ausmus said.
Through various programs, he said, the district “has been meeting this challenge, if you will, for decades.”
“We definitely have our challenges with the number of backgrounds and languages that come to us, but the school district is making every effort that it can to reach those students, serve those students, and close those achievement gaps,” Ausmus said.
Rep. Jason Goetz, a Republican from Dodge City, was eager to respond to Ausmus’ comments on diversity.
“Even just in my life, I also have the spicy wife syndrome, with the Spanish speaking at home,” Goetz said.
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