Government & Politics

Kansas’ next governor says job protections for teachers should be restored statewide

Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly said she would welcome a bill to again provide thousands of public school teachers with statewide due process protections that were eliminated years ago.

During an interview Thursday with McClatchy, she also said that she wants to strengthen the state’s civil service system, which has lost thousands of employees over the past several years.

Under due process, teachers have the right to an administrative hearing before they are fired. Advocates say that provides protection from wrongful termination. Opponents say decisions about whether to extend due process should be made by local school boards and districts, not state lawmakers.

Lawmakers and then-Gov. Sam Brownback eliminated that right from state law in 2014. Teacher unions and Democrats – including Kelly – have wanted to reverse the decision ever since.

“I voted against eliminating due process for teachers and I would welcome a bill that repeals what we enacted in 2014. I fully expect that there will be efforts to do that during the legislative session,” Kelly said.

Previous bills to restore teacher due process have not advanced to the governor’s desk. But some measures have found support among lawmakers in the House. In 2017, for example, the House approved an amendment to restore teacher due process in a 66-59 vote.

Passing a bill in 2019 may be more difficult. Even though Democrats are expected to continue to hold 40 of 125 House seats, the Republican caucus is becoming more conservative.

The success or failure of any effort may depend on lawmakers like Rep. Willie Dove, a Bonner Springs Republican who voted to repeal teacher due process in 2014.

“I believe that that position on teacher tenure should be left up to the local school board and of course the board of education,” Dove said Thursday.

But Dove also said that he could be wrong, and that he is hearing from both sides and could see the issue either way depending on the evidence.

Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said he still believes enough lawmakers support restoring due process rights to pass a bill in the House. On the other hand, the Senate is “the tough nut to crack,” he said.

Senators – with one exception – were not up for election this year. The chamber will continue to have 30 Republicans and nine Democrats.

But the chamber may become more conservative if Sen. Vicki Schmidt, seen as a moderate, is replaced with someone more conservative. Schmidt is leaving the Senate to become the state’s insurance commissioner.

“We know that we have a new governor who would sign it into law. So we’ve got two out of three, so that’s better than where I was last year,” Desetti said, referring to the governor, House and Senate.

Any legislative debate over due process rights next year may take place amid a larger discussion about school funding. Kelly wants the Legislature to approve additional funding for education to cover future increases in inflation.

The Kansas Supreme Court largely signed off on a plan approved by lawmakers to increase annual education funding by more than $500 million over five years. But it raised concerns about a lack of money to cover rising inflation. Estimates on how much more money would be required to account for inflation varies from $50 million to $100 million a year.

Republicans also have their own ideas for education. In the past, lawmakers have explored merit pay for teachers or expanded tax credits for private school tuition.

Kelly said she is open to talking to Republicans about their proposals.

“We will discuss any topic, I think, though I do have a voting record that makes it very clear what I think about using public dollars for private schools. I have opposed that in the past and I can’t imagine that that’s an area that I would be open to,” Kelly said.

“But as I said, nothing will be off the table automatically – we will have these discussions,” she said.

During Thursday’s interview, Kelly also said she wants to strengthen the state’s civil service system, which shrunk significantly during Brownback’s time in office as agencies offered pay raises to workers in exchange for leaving the system.

Workers who are part of the system are called “classified.” They are covered by the state’s Civil Service Act and can be fired only with cause. Non-classified workers are at-will employees and can be fired for any reason.

The Civil Service Act was passed in part to keep partisanship out of hiring and firing decisions.

In the 2011 budget year, Kansas had more than 19,800 classified employees. By 2017, the number had decreased to about 8,000.

By comparison, in 2017 the state had about 11,100 unclassified employees.

“I do think it’s important that we put back into place civil service protections that were eliminated over the past eight years. There’s a reason we created a civil service system decades and decades ago and I think those reasons are still valid,” Kelly said.

Kelly said she doesn’t yet what changes she can make to the state’s civil service system through an executive order and what changes would require legislation. She said she will create a task force to look at what her administration can do and she expects her secretary of administration to put forward proposals.

Kelly also appeared open to giving state employees raises.

Lawmakers approved pay raises for state workers in 2017 based on their length of service. For classified workers, it was the first across-the-board raise since 2008.

Asked if lawmakers went far enough, Kelly said her team has just began to talk about the budget.

But she added: “I think any good CEO looks for ways to appropriately compensate employees and I won’t be any different.”