Shawnee Mission schools should focus on smaller class sizes — not bigger teacher raises

School funding case in Kansas: When will it end?

(MAY 9, 2019) Schools lawyer Alan Rupe and Attorney General Derek Schmidt have differing views on whether the Supreme Court should stay involved in school finance.
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(MAY 9, 2019) Schools lawyer Alan Rupe and Attorney General Derek Schmidt have differing views on whether the Supreme Court should stay involved in school finance.

Earlier this year, Kansas lawmakers agreed to allocate another $90 million to school districts across the state. That increase was money well spent, in part because the state Supreme Court said the additional funds finally brought Kansas into constitutional compliance.

The extra money should be spent on one thing: ensuring a better education for the state’s students. So it’s concerning that at least one district is arguing about teacher salaries instead of smaller class sizes and other improvements in the classroom.

Teachers in the Shawnee Mission School District have declared an impasse in their talks with the school board. The teachers have asked for a base salary increase of nearly 4.5%, while the board has offered 1%.

A lot of money is at stake. The district expects to get about $9.8 million in additional revenue this year. Under the teacher union’s plan, $7.7 million of that would go for basic raises and other compensation.

The district has rejected that proposal. It wants to spend about $3.9 million for salary increases and health premium assistance while using other new revenue for utilities, transportation, supplies and adding 29 staff members, including teachers and social workers.

Shawnee Mission teachers are the best paid in the state. Teachers in the district earn an average of $71,382 a year in salary and benefits, according to state figures; that’s the highest in Kansas, nearly double what a teacher makes in the Hamilton School District in Greenwood County.

There’s a reason for that, local teachers say. Shawnee Mission pays high salaries because its teachers are better trained and more experienced. And they work longer, in a more expensive region.

Shawnee Mission teachers “have a higher workload than their counterparts in other local districts,” NEA Shawnee Mission president Linda Sieck said in a statement.

Yet the way to address higher workloads isn’t to give bigger raises. Instead, the district should use its money to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes.

The district says it would cost about $2.1 million to reduce elementary class sizes by two students per classroom. That seems like an easily achieved goal, one that could make a real difference for kids and families.

Unfortunately, the board isn’t offering that alternative. It wants to study the issue, a spokesman says, before committing to new classroom hiring.

But the need for more teachers seems clear. To its credit, the Shawnee Mission NEA said it is pushing for more teachers in the current contract talks.

The collective bargaining process will continue, and the start of school is safe. As in past years, the board and and the union will eventually reach an agreement. There are non-economic issues still on the table, including student discipline and teacher-directed “learning communities.”

The outlines of the deal seem clear to us: Hire more teachers to reduce classroom sizes in elementary schools, and give good raises to new teachers at the low end of the salary scale. Limit salary increases for older teachers with bigger paychecks.

That’s what Kansans supported this year when they urged lawmakers to fully fund the state’s schools. Negotiators on both sides in the Shawnee Mission District should work to deliver those results.