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How A Protracted Fight Over Kansas School Funding Fueled Shawnee Mission's Teacher Contract Dispute

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Teachers packed the Jan. 9 fact-finding hearing at the Center for Academic Achievement in the Shawnee Mission School District.

A bitter contract dispute has driven a wedge between the Shawnee Mission teachers’ union and some of the school board members the union has helped get elected in recent years.

After the Kansas Department of Labor intervened last month, tossing out the final two years of a three-year contract the school board approved over the union’s objections, the two sides are trying to come together to negotiate a contract for next school year.

But board president Heather Ousley, who ran for her seat with the union’s endorsement in 2017, said there just isn’t enough money to pay teachers more while also reducing workloads, which is one of teachers’ top demands.

“Everyone is so tired of there being funding issues, and everyone wants it to be done,” Ousley said. “And I know that it’s been exhausting. It’s been over a decade. But we’re still getting less than we need.”

Court’s ruling gives hope

There was hope last summer after the Kansas Supreme Court issued its ruling in the decade-long Gannon lawsuit over K-12 education funding. All Kansas school districts got extra money for this school year because of the ruling. Shawnee Mission’s share was $9.8 million.

But the district also lost $1 million in federal Title I dollars earmarked for low-income students due to the protracted court fight over funding.

Meanwhile, costs were going up. Shawnee Mission spent an additional $675,000 buying health insurance for employees and $347,000 on buses. Just keeping the lights on would be another $1.2 million.

According to Ousley, once all those costs had been absorbed, the district had about $3.9 million left for a new teacher contract. That was enough to pay for health insurance increases, annual raises for teachers’ experience and education levels, an additional 1% salary increase and not much else.

But the teachers union wanted more. Kansas teachers had been told for years to do more with less at every turn, and for many educators in the district, the Gannon ruling was the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Teacher concerns

Linda Sieck is tired of hearing there isn’t enough money.

“We understand the budget issues,” said Sieck, the president of the National Education Association-Shawnee Mission, “but I think what gets lost when we start talking about money is the real concern. What is your everyday teacher in the classroom feeling?”

During public comment at school board meetings throughout the fall and winter, teachers aired their growing list of grievances.

“We had the one-to-one initiative. We had changes in curriculum. Budget constraints meant we looked a lot more to not only online textbooks but free resources that didn’t put an actual book in the hands of every child,” Sieck said. “We pulled teachers out (of their classrooms) to create curriculum maps and then six months later wanted it in a different format. It was frustrating.”

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Students at the Center for Academic Achievement explain how satellites stay in orbit. The career-trajectory classes at the CAA are part of the district's personalized learning push, which teachers say is putting more pressure on them.

Elementary schools went to new schedules that meant most art, music and P.E. teachers and librarians now taught six grade levels every day. Middle and high school teachers were asked to teach an additional class – six out of seven periods, one more than in the neighboring Olathe and Blue Valley districts.

The district argued during contract talks that these workload issues were separate from compensation, but on this point, a neutral third party appointed by the Kansas Department of Labor sided with teachers.

Reducing teacher workload is one of the district’s goals in its five-year strategic plan. But hiring 70 additional teachers will cost Shawnee Mission $5 million, money the district won’t have until the new money from the Gannon ruling is fully phased in in 2023. Shawnee Mission will get $2.9 million more next year and $5.6 million the year after that.

‘Us versus them’

Board president Ousley is tired, too.

“I think the most difficult thing for me in all of this has been the attacks that we were somehow doing this maliciously,” she said.

As a parent, Ousley fought for increased school funding for a long time before running for school board. The year her daughter started kindergarten was the year the school board sent out what she calls the ‘infamous parent survey” in which parents were asked: What would you cut?

“And you could play with the budget. Do you want to cut nurses? Do you wanna cut custodial staff? Do you wanna cut orchestra?” Ousley said. “I remember going over that survey with my husband, and I was like, ‘I don't want to cut any of this stuff.’”

Ousley actually walked to Topeka five times to lobby state legislators for more money for Kansas schools.

Credit Facebook Screenshot
Shawnee Mission school board president Heather Ousley was elected with the union's backing in 2017. As the contract negotiations drag on, she's become an online target.

Now, there’s a Photoshopped image of her circulating on social media with the words “Recall Ousley” scrawled across her face in red letters.

Sollie Flora is the fourth ward councilwoman in Mission, Kansas. She said there’s sympathy among elected officials in Johnson County for what the school board is going through because they’ve all dealt with budget constraints before.

“The board has to make sure that we have a functioning school district, and if you looked at the NEA’s proposal, the three-year proposal that they brought into fact-finding, it would have moved the deficit and depleted the fund reserves in such a way that would be against the public interest,” she said.

But when Flora tried to point this out at a school board meeting last month, teachers booed and snickered. She said no one’s willing to speak up for the district for fear of being labeled anti-teacher.

“I think both the board and the NEA want what’s best for schools and what’s best for those working in our schools and learning in our schools. And I think that sort of ‘us versus them’ framing isn’t doing anyone any good,” Flora said.

The level of vitriol has also alarmed Kim Schultz, a parent educator with the district’s Parents as Teachers program.

“Even though their kids aren’t in kindergarten yet, I do have families who are watching it on Facebook,” said Schultz, who is also the parent of three Shawnee Mission students and one graduate. “I have to reign them back in and make them realize that’s not Shawnee Mission, that’s not the view of everyone.”

On Twitter and Facebook, a group calling itself “SMSD Watchdogs” has fanned the flames.

“There seems to be an appetite to personally attack the board members and the superintendent and the staff at [district headquarters],” one of the group's Facebook administrators wrote online. “We get all of it. We’re with you. ... SMSD is a great school district and it will continue to be a great school district DESPITE the ‘idiot’ leaders we have now.”

Some commenters to that message responded by asking which schools Ousley and other board members’ children attend, menacing enough that some of the comments were forwarded to local law enforcement.

Administrators of the SMSD Watchdogs Facebook have since encouraged community members to “act as if our kids are watching everything we do.” They did not respond to KCUR’s request for comment.

A changing district

Shawnee Mission has always been considered an affluent district. But there’s more poverty in Johnson County now than there used to be – 37% of students in Shawnee Mission now qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, a number that has quadrupled over the past 20 years.

And there’s more need than that, Ousley said. This year the district committed to providing a hot lunch to every student, regardless of their ability to pay. Those balances keep increasing. Former state Rep. Melissa Rooker said that tax cuts that reduced public education funding also eroded the social safety net for vulnerable families.

“There’s no question that students are arriving at school every morning with a world of issues that have been exacerbated by state policy making,” said Rooker, who is now executive director of the Kansas Children's Cabinet and Trust Fund.

A particularly sobering statistic, Rooker pointed out, is the dramatic increase in kids in foster care: nearly 2,000 more than a decade ago. And, she said, schools are supposed to meet the social and emotional needs of those students, even with limited resources.

“I don’t think that school (used to be) the hub of a lot of the kinds of services we see them delivering today. That’s happening across the state, even in places that we think of as affluent like Johnson County,” Rooker said.

Hurt and disrespected

NEA-Shawnee Mission scored a victory last month when the Department of Labor threw out the three-year unilateral contract the school board tried to impose. It included a 1% raise for the current school year, a 1.25% raise for the 2020-21 school year and a 1.5% raise for the 2021-22 school year.

Because teachers also get what’s known as “step” and “column” movement on the salary schedule – raises for experience and education – most teachers’ pay would increase by at least 3.2% each year.

But what teachers really wanted was to be able to return to the table before 2022, Sieck said.

“It was our belief to go away from the table for two years was not going to make things better,” she said. “It’s like if you (argued with a friend) and said, ‘Well, we’re not going to see each other for two years. We’re just going to walk away. That doesn’t resolve anything. You sit there drowning in your own feelings.”

And right now, she said teachers are feeling both hurt and disrespected.

Both Sieck and Shawnee Mission Superintendent Mike Fulton struck a conciliatory tone at the final board meeting in February, the first since the state Department of Labor threw out the second and third year of the unilateral contract.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The district is trying to free up money for teacher salaries and workload reductions, potentially by shifting custodian pay to the capital outlay fund. But that would mean less money for technology and building maintenance.

Most of the district’s 2,040 teachers ended up signing that contract. About 100 elected to keep working under the 2018-19 terms or didn’t sign either contract. Two teachers resigned.

Notice letters to bargain for the 2020-21 school year go out this month. Expect teacher workload to be front and center in the negotiations, even though the district doesn’t have any more money to give than they did.

“My goodness, if there was more money, this board would give it,” Ousley said. “There is not anything these seven people wouldn’t do for their community.”

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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