Olathe superintendent, GOP House members tangle over reasons for K-12 teacher vacancies

Educators, lobbyists make budget pitch to panel working on public school bill

by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
February 14, 2023

TOPEKA — The superintendent of Kansas’ second-largest school district Monday told a Kansas House education committee the social-media narrative portraying teachers as unprofessional and unworthy of respect was a prominent reason for resignations among classroom educators.

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

At the same time, he said, the district had 140 vacancies among certified or licensed educators and the cadre of paraprofessional educators. He also made a specific request of the Legislature for improved state funding of special education programs.

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

“Quite frankly,” he said, “a lot of our staff members have left because of the narrative around public education. In the last couple years, we’ve had teachers in our district who have been criticized, 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 external criticism. She said her discussion with dozens of people about teacher turnover pointed to disenchantment with administration of public schools.

“It’s always the environment in the school building,” Williams said in response to Yeager’s remarks. “From being a teacher, that’s the most important thing. What is that environment like? And, am I getting support from my administration? You’re saying the environment is great and no one is leaving because of the environment?”

Yeager, who began teaching more than 20 years ago and was named Olathe superintendent in 2021, said he didn’t say the administrative environment in Olathe schools was perfect. By and large, he said, the district’s employees were happy with where they worked. It would be fair to say some left teaching due to inadequate salaries, he said. But surveying showed negative portrayals of teachers by was convincing some to exit, he said.

Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat on the House committee from Kansas City, said during a news conference to outline House Democrats’ policy priorities that some Kansans weren’t willing to grant teachers respect they deserved. She said some Republicans in the Legislature were content to “borderline harass” K-12 educators in Kansas.

“The Legislature, whether they like it or not, or intends, is running teachers out of the profession. It is that simple,” Winn said. “Teaching is one of the most important jobs in our society. Yet, it’s repeatedly sidelined and dismissed. Some arrogant lawmakers — I hate to call them that — seem to work day in and day out to squash the hopes and esteems of Kansas teachers.”

Compensation packages

Jeremy McFadden, executive director of finance in the Blue Valley school district, recommended the House committee amend state law to expand special budget authority in districts with an average home value 125% above the statewide average. Legislative approval would lower the hurdle for Blue Valley and similar districts to raise property taxes for the purpose of financing upgrades in employee compensation, he said.

He said Blue Valley was able to make use of that authority because the average residential home value there was greater than $500,000. The average teacher in the district had a compensation package of $65,000, but support staff received less. He said it was virtually impossible to hire custodians and bus drivers for Olathe schools, in part, because salaries were insufficient for them to live near the district.

“Compensation packages that have meaningful impact on our teaching and support staff are driving these amendment proposals,” McFadden said.

Rep. Scott Hill, a Republican from Abilene serving on the K-12 budget panel, said he wasn’t thrilled school districts with high property values had a path to additional salary funding while districts with low property values were left out.

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

Bill Brady, representing Schools For Fair Funding, said the Legislature should adhere to a Kansas law requiring cost-of-living adjustments in base state aid to local districts. The Schools for Fair Funding coalition of school districts sponsored two lawsuits that led to higher state spending on K-12 public schools. The latest school finance decision by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2019 affirmed the Legislature’s budget plan whereby districts would get a COLA from the state.

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

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Derek Nester
Derek Nesterhttp://www.sunflowerstateradio.com
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2020 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.


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