Negotiators for the Shawnee Mission School District and the teachers union are at an impasse and will now present their cases to a neutral party.
On one side are teachers who feel overworked and underpaid. On the other side are school administrators who say the union’s demands will ultimately put the district in the red. It’s a dispute with deep roots in the Great Recession and all the years Kansas seriously underfunded schools, happening amidst a national conversation on teacher pay.
“We've reached a critical point,” said Samantha Feinberg, an English teacher at Shawnee Mission East. “We need the district leadership to know that we can't do our best for students and for families.”
Now what’s known as a “fact finder” is getting involved. Appointed by the Kansas Department of Labor, the fact finder will hear both parties out before making a recommendation.
‘We worry about our students’
Feinberg has taught in the Shawnee Mission School District for 16 years. She teaches high schoolers now, but she started her career at one of the middle schools. Back then, she actually had time to collaborate with other teachers on her team.
“I could turn to my social studies person and say, ‘Hey, we just read this short story set during World War I, and it seems like so-and-so doesn't understand whatever,’” Feinberg said. “It was just this really interesting interdisciplinary time.”
Then, during the recession, when Shawnee Mission was in dire financial straits, Feinberg said administrators asked if teachers would be willing to teach one more hour per day – six periods instead of five.
“And they basically kind of asked us to be patient with them for a little bit,” Feinberg said. “You know, we’re all in this together, we just have to tighten the belt. Most of us said, ‘Well, it's a temporary ask, and we can roll.’”
But there wasn’t really a plan to get secondary teachers back to five periods, which is the workload for educators in other Johnson County districts. Meanwhile, class sizes have increased – Feinberg has 35 students in each of her AP English classes – and teachers feel like there isn’t enough time to meet all of the district’s expectations.
“We just don't have the space to connect with students and their families to find out where they're coming from,” Feinberg said. “We worry about our students and the things we don't know about them that we probably should know about them.”
A very deep hole
District officials are aware that teacher workload is a problem.
“We don't have the time we need for collaborative work between teachers,” Shawnee Mission spokesman David Smith said. “If we're going to reach our strategic plan goals, we're going to need time for teachers to ... learn to reach every child.”
But to get secondary teachers back down to five periods per day, Smith said Shawnee Mission would need to hire about 70 teachers. That’s how the teachers union thinks the district should spend $9.76 million in additional state funding it got this year to make up for years of constrained school budgets, but the district maintains it’s still not enough.
“Remember, the Kansas Supreme Court said that school funding was unconstitutional for 11 of 14 years,” Smith said. “We’re talking about being in a very deep hole rather than being ahead of the game and knowing we have already have extra money for the years that are coming up.”
According to a budget breakdown published on the district’s website, Shawnee Mission has spent about $2.85 million of the additional funding on teacher compensation, including hiring 13 new special education positions.
However, the money also had to offset the loss of $1 million in federal Title I funding as well as increased transportation and utility costs.
Smith pointed out that secondary teachers did get a pay increase when they agreed to teach an additional period per day.
“Let’s be clear, as a profession, teachers aren't compensated the way we think that they should be,” Smith said. “But in terms of what we're able to do with the resources we have, our teachers have the highest average pay in the state.”
High salaries – and a high cost of living
The average teacher salary in Shawnee Mission is $70,596, which is slightly higher than in neighboring Olathe and Blue Valley and much higher than the state average.
“I would venture to say that the cost of living in Johnson County is probably the highest in the state as well,” said Linda Sieck, National Education Association Shawnee Mission Local President, “and I think it would be important to our district that those that work here be able to afford to live here.”
According to Sieck, only about a quarter of Shawnee Mission teachers – “those who have dedicated their entire professional career” to the district – make more than $65,000.
“We have successfully negotiated through the years with the district a very strong salary schedule, and teachers have benefited from that undoubtedly, but the district has as well because they've been able to hire really high-quality teachers, which encourages people to move here and enroll their children in our schools,” Sieck said.
Teacher pay made headlines in 2019 as teachers in Washington, California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Colorado and New Jersey went on strike.
Kansas law prohibits Shawnee Mission educators from striking, regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s fact-finding hearing. According to the National Education Association, Kansas ranks 41st in teacher pay, and Missouri ranks 43rd.
‘We have our own kids’
Last spring, Samantha Feinberg was stretched so thin she wrote a letter to district administrators asking them to reduce secondary teachers’ workload.
More than 200 of her colleagues signed it.
“What people want from teachers is for us to be selfless and do it for the love of working with the kids,” she said. “And that is absolutely true, but we have our own kids and families that we need to support.”
Feinberg had reached the point where she didn’t feel like a good mom or a good teacher, so she made the tough decision to cut her hours.
Feinberg said she’s lucky her husband has a good job, so she could afford to work less. She just tries not to think about how at 0.8 FTE, she still teaches five periods per day, “which in all of our neighboring school districts is a full-time position.”
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.