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Lawmaker's Email Shocks Much Of Olathe School District

Sam Zeff

This story was updated at 9:35 pm

An email to faculty and staff in the Olathe School District has prompted a bitter back-and-forth between the state legislator who authored it and the board of education. It has also triggered suggestions of illegal use of email and a possible Kansas Open Meetings Act violation.

On Tuesday Rep. Scott Schwab, a Republican from Olathe, sent a long email to district faculty and staff claiming Superintendent Marlin Berry lied about the district's finances. Schwab wrote that the superintendent said in an email to staff that the state had cut funding to the district when, in fact, it actually increased aid by $450,000.

Credit Kansas Legislature
State Rep. Scott Schwab, a conservative Republican from Olathe, says the Olathe school superintendent lied about the school district's finances.

Schwab said the Olathe delegation was disappointed with Berry's email and it showed poor leadership.

"First, it kills morale," he wrote. "It is difficult to go with passion into your daily work when the district’s top leaders are pulling your heart out of it."

Schwab went on to say the district could easily raise $4 million more if it maximized the local property tax levy.

"The increase would be so small a home owner wouldn't even notice it," Schwab said in a phone interview with KCUR on Thursday.

The district wasted little time firing back. In an email written by school board member Amy Martin and signed by the entire board, she said Schwab's email contained inaccurate information about block grant funding and local taxes.

Martin also took him to task for even sending his email.

"We find it unfortunate that an elected leader chose to interrupt your workday and misuse the taxpayer funded email system the district provides for you to communicate with parents and peers," she wrote.

Then she got really tough: "We are instructing our attorney to investigate if any laws have been broken and we are looking at measures to prevent similar intrusions on your valued time in the future."

But Schwab told KCUR that it's perfectly legal for him to email teachers and suggested the board violated the state open meetings law.

"The response was signed by the whole board," he said. "Where are the minutes of the meeting?"

Schwab charged in his email that Superintendent Berry is misrepresenting district finances to squeeze teachers during contract talks.

"You have a right to negotiate your labor contract with the board, and you should have confidence the superintendent is negotiating in good faith with you. He is not," he wrote in his email.

The district responded with a statement: "As we do everyday with passion and persistence, our amazing staff and community is preparing students for their future. We are not letting an unfortunate and inaccurate message distract us from this mission."

The Olathe School District has had financial problems this year. In the summer it laid off some 80 employees, including library aides and custodians, to close a $2 million budget hole.

The school district also asked the state for $458,000 in extraordinary needs funding in August to offset an enrollment increase. The state gave the district no extra money.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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