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Despite growing financial pressures, negotiators for the Lawrence school district put slightly more than $1 million of new money on the table Monday night to fund pay raises and to absorb the rising cost of health benefits.
But the district said it is not willing to go as far as teachers had requested in fully restoring the administrative due process rights for tenured teachers, rights which for decades had been guaranteed by statute until the Kansas Legislature revoked them earlier this year.
Instead, district officials proposed giving teachers the same administrative due process rights that school administrators still enjoy under statute, which is to appeal a firing or non-renewal of a contract to the school board rather than an independent hearing officer.
"We believe that's where the decision-making authority resides, with the board of education," said David Cunningham, director of legal services for the district.
In April, Kansas lawmakers passed a bill that repeals tenure rights for K-12 teachers, although the rights will still apply to community college and technical school instructors. That measure was added late in the session to a school funding bill that was aimed at responding to a recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling.
Since then, it has ignited protests among teachers and other public school advocates, and teachers unions have vowed to make it a central issue in the upcoming elections for governor and the Kansas House of Representatives.
Cunningham, however, said the Lawrence school district has several procedures in place to ensure that employment decisions are made fairly. Those include a new evaluation system — which was also the subject of considerable discussion Monday night — as well as evaluation systems for principals and other administrators who make hiring and firing decisions.
"The Board of Education is the body statutorily charged with making employment decisions," district officials stated in a memo outlining their position. "While the manner in which it occurred is suspect, the result of the Legislature's recent action is to restore to the Board that right and obligation."
At an earlier negotiating session, negotiators for the Lawrence Education Association had proposed lifting the language in the current due process statute and inserting it directly into the local contract.
LEA officials did not respond Monday night to the district's proposal. But David Reber, lead negotiator for the local teachers, compared it to putting "the fox in charge of the hen house," saying teachers would have to appeal to a body that had already made up its mind.
Meanwhile, the district did offer to raise every teacher's base pay by $600 a year, and to fully fund the so-called "step increases" they receive for additional years of experience and additional college degrees. That would amount to an average 1.6 percent pay raise for teachers and would cost the district an estimated $711,347 next year.
The district also offered to absorb an estimated 6.1 percent increase in the cost of fringe benefits by continuing to pay the full cost of employee health insurance, for a cost of $296,143.
But district negotiators acknowledged those moves may be unsustainable in the future. Unlike most districts in Kansas, they said, Lawrence will see a net loss in state funding of $1.7 million as a result of the school finance bill that lawmakers passed.
And while the district can restore some of that — about $1.4 million — by raising its local option budget, that would only be good for one year, unless voters in the district vote during the upcoming school year to extend the increase in local property taxes.
The two sides are scheduled to meet again in two weeks, on Monday, June 2.