Shawnee Mission board president answers questions about teacher morale

Shawnee Mission Board of Education President Heather Ousley (right)

The Shawnee Mission Post today published a piece detailing the reasons many teachers in the Shawnee Mission School District have been reporting waning morale in recent years. We offered the board of education the opportunity to respond to some of the issues teachers brought up, and board president Heather Ousley provided the responses below. We’re publishing them in their entirety.

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Q&A session with board president Saturday

Education First Shawnee Mission and the Shawnee Mission Post will host a community Q&A session this Saturday with Shawnee Mission Board of Education President Heather Ousley on the outcome of this year’s teachers contract negotiations and where the district and teachers must go from here.
The event will take place from 9:30-11 a.m. at the Matt Ross Community Center in downtown Overland Park.
Find details here.

[/pullquote]Many teachers feel like they have been asked to do more and more over the past half dozen years or so without a commensurate increase in compensation and often without the support and resources they need to execute effectively. The 1:1 initiative was cited by a couple of them as an example. Expectations to provide tailored learning experiences to every child in a classroom were another. How do you respond to those sentiments?

Yes, that is what happened, and it is 100% understandable that teachers feel this way.

The state of Kansas cut our Shawnee Mission School District funding over the last half a dozen years by $30 million dollars (details here). Members of this Board have long fought these funding cuts as advocates and have done everything we could to fight for additional dollars for Shawnee Mission. Further, the Kansas legislature is still asking our community to make-due without constitutionally adequate resources for 3 more years.

In addition, in 2016 the Kansas State Board of Education updated state education standards, adding Individualized Plans of Study for every Kansas student to the list of expectations placed upon all Kansas teachers and districts (KSDE, 2016). Our community has incorporated this into our strategic plan as well, but the obligation began in 2016.

When the 2018 funding formula was debated several advocates raised the alarm that it simply would not be enough, calling for further levels of Special Education funding and a more rapid infusion of the restored adequacy dollars. Our District informed the legislature we would need at least $15 million in restored funding the first year to address workload adjustments, compensation, and an increase in social workers and counselors. Ultimately, what passed did not include Special Education funding in line with our District’s needs, phased in funding restoration, with adequacy levels not met until 2023. Shawnee Mission received $9 million instead of the minimum $15 million needed. Couple this with increased obligatory spending hitting this year, such as utility increases, transportation increases, an extraordinary increase in health insurance rates, and meeting our legal and moral obligation to begin repairing our Special Education program, we were left with the unfortunate confluence of very high expectations and significant unmet financial needs.

There are, as every child in our District in a financially at-risk home knows, two discordant truths that can exist at one time:

This is not enough. This is also the very best we can do today.

Our current Board and our Superintendent knew they were inheriting difficult circumstances. When Dr. Fulton began his tenure, his primary goal during the first year was to lead the community through a collaborative planning process, so that our community would work towards a Shawnee Mission future inclusive of all our stakeholders: teachers, parents, patrons, administrators, and students. This is our community plan, and it is our community responsibility to advocate for the resources we need to implement it in Topeka and in D.C. You are not alone in fighting for our children; our community, including the Board, Dr. Fulton, District leadership, our community parent groups, our students, our local business communities and chambers of commerce, and our faith communities, are doing everything we can to get you what you need. You, our community’s educators, are loved. I am truly heartbroken that our state chose a path of fiscal recklessness that we are still recovering from today.

Teachers also say they feel that it’s become increasingly difficult to be effective as a teacher as the total number of students in their sections has increased. How do you respond to that?

As noted above, increased expectations for educational outcomes related to Statewide standards impact the experience in the classroom and the stress on our teachers. Shawnee Mission reduced class size guidelines two years ago by 2 students at the elementary level and a cap was implemented for the first time at the secondary level. While Shawnee Mission class sizes are competitive with our neighboring districts, and in many instances lower, our community has absolutely prioritized further adjustments to these guidelines (see Strategic Plan 3.2.2).

The additional section assignment implemented by the former superintendent regarding 6:7 was a factor that allowed Shawnee Mission to keep competitive class sizes. However, there are classes at both the elementary and secondary level that land at the maximum range of the class size guidelines, and we know this is terribly difficult. Thus, the Board committed to begin phasing in workload adjustments during the 21-22 academic year in the contract.

Section adjustments at the elementary level to lower class size by 1-2 students are projected to cost $2 million. Section adjustments at the middle school level are projected to cost $2 million. Section adjustments at the high school level are projected to cost $3 million.

Workload adjustments are paid for with operational funds, as required by state law, and as a salary commitment they are an ongoing, year-over-year dedicated expenditure. That is, once the dollars are earmarked for compensation, they can’t be rerouted to something else later. Thus, to do all three at once would require an estimated additional $7 million dollars in operational funds each year, plus inflation.

In addition, workload adjustments must be balanced against other needs our community has called to be addressed, including social workers in each building, additional counselors at the secondary level, reducing the sections elementary specialists teach, and increasing classified salary to a more competitive market rate.

Dr. Fulton will present the sustainable path forward to workload adjustments in line with our community’s strategic plan by June of 2020.

What are some of the primary factors you’ll be using to determine the way forward with the budget?

During the time of the $30 million in funding cuts, Shawnee Mission spent down its operational balance from approximately $25 million to what is now $13 million (with $5 million in an emergency contingency fund that is limited to emergencies). The Kansas Department of Education recommends a 15% remainder in operational fund balances, while other professional associations recommend two months’ worth of operating expenditures. Such balances ensure we can cover expenses that are due prior to payments from the state, or in instances of non-payments. Shawnee Mission, in an effort to avoid the most devastating results from the state funding cuts, spent down the reserve to 7.3%, less than half the recommended best practice, and not enough to cover one month of expenses.

There are at least two problems with spending down operational balances any further. First, these balances are one-time dollars while operational expenses, like teachers’ salaries, are year-over-year expenses. Payment for recurring costs from one-time operational balance funds is not solving the problem but kicking the can down a very short road. If operational balance funds were used to implement workload adjustments, they would be expended within two years ($7 million a year v. $13 million in operational balances), forcing the District to implement a reduction in force in order to remain solvent in two years. Second, if we spend our balances down any further, we may find our bond rating at risk. In short, the cost of managing our facilities would increase. Bond ratings impact the interest paid on capital. Like individuals with credit scores, there are financial consequences to bond ratings that could impact our use of capital dollars.

Currently, education bills in Topeka contain proposals to launch a new voucher program that would take dollars directly out of the funds available to public schools, and sunsetting a provision that provides Shawnee Mission $1 million a year in At-Risk funds. We are projected to receive restored dollars totaling $2.9 million next year (2020-2021). To be honest, I don’t want to begin to think about the financials if the voucher bills pass. To put this in perspective, the compensation package increase for the 2019-2020 year included 1% to the base at $1.2 million, $1.6 million towards step movement (additional years teaching), $500,000 in column movement (additional post-secondary credits earned) and $545,000 in health insurance compensation for a total package expenditure of $3.9 million. Let me repeat this, the District anticipates receiving only $2.9 million in restored funding next year, and a basic compensation increase package costs $3.9 million.

The financial considerations above played heavily into the consideration of NEA-SM’s three-year contract structure presented in September 2019. While Shawnee Mission receives only $2.9 million next year (2020-2021), the subsequent year includes $5.6 million in restored funds (2021-2022). Finalizing expenditures over the two-year period together (2020-2022) permitted a better compensation increase for both 20-21 and 21-22: $2.9 plus $5.6 = $8.5, allowing for a compensation package increasing each year. Remember, in this proposal base pay increases were 1% the first year, 1.25% the second, and 1.5% the third year. Further, with the security of moving forward with a two-year plan, we could begin addressing the $7 million in workload adjustments.

Within our community there are two primary proposals that have been debated to create or recapture opportunities to fund workload reductions: (1) eliminate cabinet/administrators; or (2) shift custodial salaries to capital dollars in order to free up operational funds. One is unrealistic. The other is not.

Let’s address administrative salaries first.

On page 40 of the Fact Finder’s report (found here), he found that there was “no evidence that the administrative salary levels or hiring practices [of the District] are somehow improper or excessive.” In addition to this finding, the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) collects information on administrative salary levels from every district in the state. Unlike the KC Business Journal, which relies on individual reporting which may or may not include benefit packages or stipend information, KSDE gathers all data regarding compensation and tallies it as a total package. KSDE reports that Shawnee Mission’s average administrative package comes in third in Johnson County at $121,212 a year, behind Olathe at $124,013 and Blue Valley at $140,584 respectively. The category comprising “Administrators” includes Cabinet Members, Principals, Directors, and specialized professionals. Shawnee Mission has, in the last two years, made specific efforts to further reduce this footprint through attrition at the Cabinet level, lowering the footprint by about $700,000 annually, while staying competitive in the Johnson County market. The entirety of our annual administrative footprint is less than 5% of our budget. We could eliminate every single administrator in the District, and still not be able to afford the teacher compensation ask that was contained in the final three year offer from NEA-SM let alone the needed funds to make workload adjustments (found here).

Now let’s discuss custodial salaries.

Capital Outlay funds are generated through a local mill levy of 8 mills and is dedicated to building maintenance and repairs. Bond dollars are the large “loans” obtained for specific purposes approved by voters, and mill levy dollars are what we use to make payments towards retiring the bonds. For the 2019-2020 year, the District has $47 million in the Capital Outlay Fund. The previous publicly approved bond has been exhausted. Thus, for the $600 million in repairs and updates currently facing the district, the monies available to address them are significantly limited. This means there is a not insignificant risk for an entire sub-category of employees, should their salary be shifted to a funding stream that is responsible for maintaining and preserving the aging infrastructure of our historical district. In order to protect these employees from politically hot, competing interests, safeguards must be put in place. One is the passage of a policy by the Board, that would designate custodial salaries as the first interest for these dollars, so that demands regarding maintenance and repairs would not put their livelihoods at risk. This policy is in its early stages. We need our custodial staff; they help to maintain the health and safety of our schools. The next step would be for the District to have a successful bond initiative, in order to secure funding to address maintenance needs in a significant way, freeing up mill levy dollars to cover custodial staff, which in turn, frees up operational fund abilities. We already have some of our maintenance salaries paid for with capital dollars, so this is not a pot of gold, but it is workable.

Action to inform this process is occurring now, including the demographic study of our growing community, assessing our overfull buildings where we couldn’t add another classroom even if we want to, what choices make the most sense regarding the phase-in of work load reduction (do we start at the high school or middle school level? or do we begin with core curriculum?), and the Finance and Facilities committee’s priority setting begins now.

Wait, what about Ipads? Digital Technology is a teaching tool that will continue to be modified and improved upon, not only in response to community concerns but as best practices continue to evolve. This will be discussed and focused on in the upcoming year and is why the lease renewal for Ipads has been postponed. From a financial standpoint, digital tools are paid for with Capital Outlay, freeing up operational funds. If the District eliminated the technology, it would shift expenses related to textbooks, paper, and traditional curriculum, back into operational, potentially impacting the dollars available for salaries.

Wait what about legal fees? Litigation related expenses are paid for out of a designated mill levy, that does not impact operational funds. General legal services not related to litigation do impact operational dollars. Current expenses are in line with and in some instances less than previous years.

There were high hopes that Dr. Fulton and the new board members would be taking action to address these issues, and, at least in the estimation of the teachers we spoke with, they haven’t seen what they were expecting. What would you say to such teachers?

When the 2018 funding formula was approved, many were quick to proclaim that our funding woes were over. But, as addressed above, that is not the case. However, this set the stage for high expectations and a hope for quick, meaningful change. We’re with you that change cannot come fast enough – particularly for teachers who have been carrying this load for their sixth year now. We see you; we believe you.

We are fiercely dedicated to improving this District, to doing our best to provide compensation increases year over year while reducing workload, with resources that are not, and will not be, constitutionally adequate until 2023.

We are the same Board that has invested in Special Education, Cultural Competency, provided hot lunches to every child, and protected our LGBTQ students and staff. The restrictions against bargaining away from the table made it difficult to counter inaccurate narratives that set fiscally impossible expectations.

For those who were frustrated that the final financial package mirrored the financial package that was the District’s offer in July 2019 when negotiations went to impasse, please know the frustration was equally felt from those of us on the Dias. The first-year financials were the best they could be in July 2019 and remained the best they could be in January 2020. The dollars are the dollars.

To the educators who have reached out to express your dismay at the loss of years two and three of the contract, I am sorry for the loss of that stability. To those who have lent support and kind words during this time, thank you, it has been very much appreciated.

Moving forward, it is imperative that we correct deficiencies in the communication process that impeded mutual resolution. Shawnee Mission has reached out to NEA to join us in a request for professional mediation services moving forward through the Kansas Department of Labor. Mediators provide vital and necessary guard rails so we can create a productive process in the future.