By JOHN MILBURN
TOPEKA -- Public schools would be required to open up staff mailboxes and bulletin boards to all unions or groups working on behalf of educators under legislation debated Monday that opponents see as another Republican attempt to weaken unions in Kansas.
State law currently requires school districts to only grant full access to teachers to the designated "professional education organization," or PEO, that negotiates teachers' contracts. Under legislation being considered by the House Education Committee, all such organizations would be able to send teachers letters or information at the schools where they work.
Opponents say that would dilute the power of unions and groups that currently represent teachers. But supporters say one group shouldn't control the flow of information.
Among those supporting the bill is the Kansas Association of American Educators, which the Kansas Supreme Court has labeled a PEO. But the group's executive director, Garry Sigle, said his group isn't seeking to negotiate teacher contracts, just provide teachers information about other services.
"We aren't seeking the right to bargain for any teachers in Kansas," Sigle told the committee. "We don't do that."
Sigle said his group's aim is to improve the teaching profession, charging teachers $15 a month for membership and insurance. He described it as a non-partisan organization affiliated with the national American Association of Educators. He said he has been denied access to schools and by administrators, and that member teachers who have tried to distribute information have been subjected to intimidation.
"I want to have the opportunity to talk to all the teachers in the state. I want to have the opportunity to talk to all the teachers at one time," said Sigle, a former teacher in Riley County.
But the Kansas National Education Association, which negotiates teacher contracts for several Kansas school districts, opposes the bill.
"Although it may appear a PEO is being given preferential treatment, it is merely exercising the privileges that are accorded to it by law as the duly elected bargaining representative," KNEA attorney Marjie Blaufuss told the committee.
Blaufuss noted that all teachers are covered by district-negotiated agreements regardless of union membership, but only KNEA members would receive legal representation in matters regarding employment contracts.
Sigle said the teachers who join his organization do so because they don't feel their beliefs are represented by the KNEA or other organizations that also engage in political activities. He didn't say how many teachers belonged to his group but said the number was "growing" statewide.
There are more than 34,500 teachers in Kansas. Currently, the KNEA, the American Federation of Teachers and other non-aligned groups negotiate teacher contracts in the state.
Freshman GOP Rep. Willie Dove of Bonner Springs said he favors any effort to put more information in front of teachers that wouldn't be partisan and might make education better.
No vote was taken on the bill Monday.
Democrats cited several bills in the 2013 session that are aimed at dismantling the power of unions such as the KNEA, including a bill prohibiting public employee unions from automatically deducting money from members' paychecks to help finance political activities.
Another measure backed by some Republicans would go even further. It would prohibit any automatic paycheck deductions for union dues and allow individual employees to opt out of collective bargaining and represent themselves. Hensley called it the "ultimate union-busting piece of legislation."
"This is in my 11th year in the House of Representatives, and I have never seen an all-out assault on working Kansans like what we are witnessing right now," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
But fellow Democrat Rep. Ed Trimmer, a member of the education committee, said decisions about whether other unions or groups are allowed to disseminate information to teachers at their schools should be left to school districts. He said decisions should be left to school boards. He said the state had no place in mandating policies regarding the flow of information or with whom teachers can negotiate contracts.
"That's the choice of the board," he said.