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Olathe Superintendent, GOP House Members Clash Over Grounds For K-12 Teacher Vacancies

TOPEKA – The superintendent of the Kansas 2nd School District told a Kansas House education committee on Monday that the social media narrative that portrays teachers as unprofessional and unworthy of respect was a major reason for quits among classroom educators .

Superintendent Brent Yeager said he was proud that the Olathe district of 29,500 students had a 91.8% graduation rate. He said 60% of Olathe students have completed one or more advanced placement courses. He appreciated a district with 30.4% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch programs and also earned $45.5 million in college scholarships in 2021-2022.

At the same time, he said, the district had 140 vacancies between certified or licensed educators and the paraprofessional educators group. He also made a specific request to the legislature for better state funding of special education programs.

When asked during the K-12 House Education Budget Committee about the reasons for the district’s struggle to retain educators and fill vacancies, the superintendent was forthright.

“Frankly,” he said, “many of our staff have left because of the public education narrative. Over the past two years, we’ve had teachers in our district who have been criticised, ostracized…on social media.”

‘Always the environment’

Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chair of the education budget committee, said she wasn’t convinced the issue was an outside critique. She said her discussions with dozens of people about teacher turnover indicated disenchantment with public school administration.

“It’s always the environment in the school building,” Williams said in response to Yeager’s remarks. “From being a teacher, this is the most important thing. How is that environment? And do I get support from my administration? Are you saying the environment is great and nobody leaves because of the environment?”

Yeager, who began teaching more than 20 years ago and was named superintendent of Olathe in 2021, said he didn’t say the administrative environment at Olathe schools was perfect. In general, he said, district employees were happy where they worked. It would be fair to say that some have left teaching due to inadequate salaries, he said. But the survey showed negative portrayals of teachers persuading some to quit, he said.

Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat on the Kansas City House committee, said during a press conference to outline the policy priorities of House Democrats that some Kansans were unwilling to give teachers the respect they deserve. She said some Republicans in the Legislature were content to “borderline harassment” of K-12 educators in Kansas.

“The legislator, whether he likes it or not, or intends to, is excluding teachers from the profession. It’s that simple,” Winn said. “Teaching is one of the most important jobs in our society. and the esteem of Kansas teachers.

Compensation packages

Jeremy McFadden, executive director of finance in the Blue Valley School District, recommended that the House committee change state law to expand special budgetary authority in districts with an average home value 125 percent above the state average. The legislative passage would lower the bar for Blue Valley and similar districts to raise property taxes in order to fund employee compensation upgrades, he said.

He said Blue Valley was able to make use of that authority because the median residential home value was more than $500,000. The average teacher in the district was compensated $65,000, but support staff received less. She said it was virtually impossible to hire janitors and bus drivers for Olathe schools, in part because salaries were insufficient to live near the district.

“Compensation packages that significantly impact our teaching and support staff are driving these proposed amendments,” McFadden said.

Rep. Scott Hill, an Abilene Republican who serves on the K-12 budget panel, said he wasn’t thrilled that school districts with high home values ​​had a path for funding the additional salaries while home value districts lows were excluded.

“I’m really skeptical about allowing districts to become unequal in the amount of resources they have available to attract teachers,” Hill said.

Bill Brady, who represents Schools For Fair Funding, said lawmakers should comply with a Kansas law requiring cost-of-living adjustments in basic state aid to local districts. The Schools for Fair Funding coalition of school districts sponsored two lawsuits that resulted in increased state spending on K-12 public schools. The Kansas Supreme Court’s latest school funding decision in 2019 upheld the legislature’s budget plan under which districts would get a COLA from the state.

Game On for Kansas Schools representative Judith Deedy asked the House committee to mirror the K-12 budget outlined by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. The Republican-led committee did not take action on various new spending proposals for schools.

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