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Shawnee Mission School District Asking Voters For More Money To Lighten Teacher Workloads

A student raises her hand in a modern classroom at Rhein Benninghoven Elementary, which was built in 2017. Shawnee Mission wants to rebuild some of its oldest elementary schools with rising maintenance costs.
Kristin Babcock
Shawnee Mission School District
A student raises her hand in a modern classroom at Rhein Benninghoven Elementary, which was built in 2017. Shawnee Mission wants to rebuild some of its oldest elementary schools with rising maintenance costs.

The middle of a pandemic is a tough time to ask taxpayers for more money. But Shawnee Mission is dealing with a crisis of teacher morale and aging buildings in need of maintenance.

Teacher burnout didn’t start with the pandemic.

Shawnee Mission teachers have felt the stress for years. Middle and high school teachers in Shawnee Mission teach one more class per day than educators in other Johnson County districts. Last year, they told the administration that what they were doing was unsustainable as contract talks broke down.

“I have a colleague who’s fond of talking about the art and science of teaching,” said Johnny Winston, a chemistry teacher and coach at Shawnee Mission Northwest. “And part of that art is there’s some performance involved. It’s like doing an extra show for the day, and it’s exhausting.”

Last year, Winston had about 150 students, or 25 more than he would if he were teaching five classes a day instead of six. Having so many students forced him to scale back assignments sometimes.

“Things that require a lot of feedback, you don’t have time to get to, or it’s weeks and sometimes a month later,” Winston said. “You’ve lost that moment in education.”

That’s why Shawnee Mission is asking voters to approve a $264 million bond that would, among other things, allow the district to hire more teachers.

Contract talks

Even before COVID-19 closed schools last spring, it had already been a tumultuous year for Shawnee Mission teachers. The union reached a contract agreement with the district just days before the pandemic began.

Those talks focused on pay and workload, with district administration ultimately agreeing that something would need to be done to alleviate teacher stress in the not-so-distant future.

“The term workload to me is a little misleading,” said Adam Finkelston, who teaches visual arts at Shawnee Mission East. “This is not going to give us less work to do. It’s going to give us more time to do better work for the students we have. I’m not going to be in front of students, but I’m still going to be working that hour.”

Finkelston has been at East for 13 years, long enough to remember when teachers taught one fewer class per day. That was before deep education funding cuts forced Kansas school districts to tighten their belts. Shawnee Mission middle and high school teachers have taught six periods a day ever since.

To get them back down to five periods a day, the district has proposed raising additional money for capital projects and to pay custodians. That would free up money to hire more teachers.

“This community has always supported public education, and it would be disappointing if this bond didn’t pass,” said Finkelston, who grew up in the district and whose kids also attend Shawnee Mission schools.

Deep divides

But even bond supporters acknowledge it’s a tough time to be asking voters to raise their own taxes. Shawnee Mission is not unique in that parents are deeply divided over whether students should be learning online or in-person this year, and with Superintendent Mike Fulton leaving, no one knows who will be leading the district into the future.

“I really hope we didn’t drive him off,” said Diana Weeks-Radke, the parent of two Shawnee Mission students and the PTA president at John Diemer Elementary in Overland Park. “COVID-19 has amped up everyone’s response to any sort of a conflict. I see that across our culture, not just in schools.”

Weeks-Radke said there’s been a lot of venting on social media about decisions that have been made in recent months, both from parents who want schools open and parents who are keeping their students home this year. And it doesn’t help that people are tired of politics.

“I think people have election fatigue. I just really don’t want to see our local public schools suffer because of a sort of national sense of discontent,” Weeks-Radke said. “But I’d also like my kids to have a library that isn’t a hallway.”

Because that’s also part of the bond package: Shawnee Mission wants to rebuild five elementary schools, including John Diemer, as well as upgrade aging facilities across the district.

“My parents are both retired. They’re in their 70s,” she said. “As they tell me, Shawnee Mission Schools built this area. Previous leaders have always seen the value of good schools and maintaining those schools. And we need to continue that tradition so that we can support the next generation of kids.”

Voters have until Jan. 26 to return their mail-in ballots. If approved, the bond will increase property taxes by $8 per $100,000 of assessed valuation annually.

Eds. note: Winston had 150 students last year. This year, he has fewer students than most of his colleagues because he is teaching more honors classes.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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