The most interesting part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s appearance at Wichita State University on Monday was the one thing he didn’t praise.
He had plenty of praise for increased money for Wichita State, and for public schools. But most questions he was asked after his short talk concerned a provision to strip veteran K-12 teachers of tenure rights in the recently passed public school financing bill, which he said he has not decided whether to sign. And while he didn’t criticize that provision, he didn’t endorse it either.
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“All the Legislature really did was remove state-mandated teacher tenure, but if a local school district decides that they want to have tenure, they can do that,” Brownback said. He said some districts already have tenure and due-process provisions in teacher contracts and others are considering doing that, he said.
That echoes a Republican talking point that legislators have emphasized since Saturday, when they had to abandon an inaccurate claim that teachers would still have to be informed of the reason if they are fired.
The due-process provision of the school finance bill essentially only preserves the right to a due-process hearing when a dismissed teacher claims a school district violated his or her constitutional rights, such as in cases of sex, race or age discrimination.
Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka teacher, said while union bargaining might protect teachers in large districts, it will leave hundreds and maybe thousands of teachers in small districts unprotected from unjust firings.
“What they’re trying to do is the old proverbial put lipstick on a pig,” Hensley said.
He said the reality is that while teachers are forbidden from striking, school boards hold the balance of power in negotiations and can unilaterally impose a contract if they don’t want to grant tenure and due-process rights that are now guaranteed by the state.
Brownback had come to Wichita on Monday to congratulate WSU president John Bardo and local legislators. Just a few days ago, the Legislature adopted Brownback’s recommendation to give WSU $2 million for a new building designed mostly for technology innovation.
But most of the questions Brownback answered after he spoke about WSU concerned teachers, and the topic of what teachers call “due process” and what Brownback calls “teacher tenure.”
For his part, Brownback, who talked at length about how glad he was that the Legislature had given K-12 schools additional millions, had no direct praise for the anti-tenure provision. Instead, he said the following:
• “I’m hearing from a lot of teachers, and there is a great level of concern.”
• His lawyers are reviewing the whole school funding bill, including the tenure provision, and he is not ready to say whether he will veto or sign the bill.
• He and the lawyers studied whether the tenure provision could be line-item vetoed. He said the lawyers said no, he cannot do that.
• He will consider vetoing the entire school funding bill, because of the tenure provision. But he said that would have tough consequences, including for many teachers. Denying the increased funding would automatically lead to several districts immediately laying off teachers, he said.
• He also said that he publicly praised the school funding bill while it was still being debated, and that the Legislature then tacked on the teacher tenure provision after he did that.
• He said it was his understanding that tacking on the tenure provision happened in the last part of the round-the clock legislative debate on the weekend before adjournment. “At the end of the day,” Brownback said, “legislators were trying to get something to pass in a conservative Legislature.”
Outside the building where Brownback spoke, moving around a lot to keep warm in the high wind and 42 degree temperature, were half a dozen retired teachers, holding up protest signs, including Pam Taverner from Wichita.
Speaking for the group, she said she was hoping the governor took note of them on his way into the building. She said the Legislature with its last vote earlier this month sorely mistreated teachers, stripping them of their long-held right to due process in any future employment conflict with any Kansas school. That provision was included in an overall Kansas schools finance package that Brownback said increases public school spending by potentially $150 million.
“But what does due process for hard working teachers have to do with school funding?” Taverner said. The sign she held, outside WSU’s Marcus Welcome Center where Brownback was meeting with people inside, said, “We oppose attacks on K-12 teachers.”
Taverner and several retired teachers around her said they were there because current teachers were busy at that hour teaching school.
“I hope he vetoes this bill,” she said. She said the governor and Legislature are congratulating themselves on increasing money to public schools, even though part of the reason they did it was because of a court order, and the added money for public schools isn’t going to make up for the cuts in the past four years.
Brownback has 10 days from Monday to decide whether to veto it, sign it or let it pass into law without his signature.
He said he won’t take the full 10 days.