Kansas bill would give school board members tools to improve transparency and accountability

(The Sentinel) – School board members in Kansas would no longer be restricted to whom they could speak on district issues, nor be barred from school property under Senate Bill 427 (SB 427) in…

(The Sentinel) – School board members in Kansas would no longer be restricted to whom they could speak on district issues, nor be barred from school property under Senate Bill 427 (SB 427) in front of the Senate Education Committee.

Among the provisions of SB 427:

  • Board members would have their email addresses listed on their district websites and sent to the state Department of Education to maintain a database of them.
  • Members would be authorized to add new items to board meeting agendas under New Business.
  • Members would be able to ask questions or discuss issues with school patrons during Public Comment periods at meetings
  • The legislation also provides for Public Comment periods during virtual meetings
  • Members would be able to access district property at any time the property is open to school district employees

Retired administrator Dr. Janet Neufeld and seven current and former school board members provided oral or written testimony in support of SB 427.  Amy CawveyKirsten Workman, and Carla Wiegers of USD 469 Lansing, Vanessa Reid and Karen Overbey of USD 453 Leavenworth, former USD 265 Goddard board member Bob Merritt, and Cathy Boote with USD 260 Derby recounted examples of being stifled from adding issues to agendas, visiting school properties, getting questions answered, and interacting with the public at meetings.

Ward Cassidy, a retired teacher and current Executive Director of the Kansas School Board Resource Center, also submitted testimony in support of the bill.

New board member Derek Waggoner of Chanute USD 413 says he has received little support from the school’s leadership early in his term:

“I was told several things that I felt were wrong. One was that if I had any questions about policy or our district, I was to only take them to the school board president. I was not to be speaking with teachers or administration. The second item that worried me, was that I was directed that I am only a school board member when I’m sitting at the school board table during our scheduled monthly meetings.”

Waggoner added meetings with his superintendent and board president, including a KASB representative intended to clarify issues, were fruitless and frustrating for the new member:

“I know there are teachers who are upset, I know there are citizens who are upset, I know our children can be caught in the crossfire, and I know that change needs to happen, but how will we ever get better if we can’t take some criticism or hold conversations that lead to positive change?”

KASB Director of Advocacy Leah Fliter opposed the legislation, reminding committee members they don’t operate under similar guidelines:

“This bill imposes meeting requirements on school boards that go beyond what’s required of other public bodies, including what members of this legislature  imposes upon themselves.”

On the publishing of member emails, Fliter cited cybersecurity concerns:

“School districts are especially vulnerable to hacking; that’s why you can email any member through the central email on the district website, so they can get it without the danger of being hacked.”

She didn’t explain why publishing school employee emails does NOT pose a cybersecurity threat – just for school board members.

The only other opponent was Jerry Henn, representing United School Administrators and the School Superintendents Association.

Dave Trabert, CEO of The Kansas Policy Institute, which owns The Sentinel, testified SB 427 was the result of requests from school board members:

“We proposed SB 427 to remove barriers that prevent school board members from doing their jobs to help improve student achievement and represent constituent interests. All our information is based on feedback we get from school board members.”

If the bill becomes law, it will take effect this July 1st.