- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Wichita Eagle, Aug. 9

Teaching is tough - so why not offer ‘hazard pay’ at high-stress schools?

A tentative contract deal between the Wichita school district and service workers includes a new incentive for employees who work at some of the district’s most challenging schools - Greiffenstein, Wells, Sowers and Gateway.

Custodians, security guards and para-educators at those schools, which serve children with mental illness, emotional disturbances and those who have been suspended from other schools, would make an additional 50 cents an hour under the proposed contract.

A kind of “hazard pay,” union officials said, for braving classrooms that can be grueling, exhausting and at times even dangerous.

“People don’t realize how intense the situation can be with some of those student populations,” said Esau Freeman, spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 513, which represents about 2,000 school district employees.

“Unions have heard from staff who were being injured regularly and just dealing with incredibly difficult things,” he said. “We feel like premium pay for those buildings would reward people who are ambitious enough to get in there and give it a shot.”

Local teachers-union leaders have warned for years that out-of-control kids are driving some educators out of the profession. Research confirms that most teachers experience job-related stress that can lead to burnout and affect student performance.

Contract terms such as incentive pay for challenging assignments are a step in the right direction - and should be offered to Wichita teachers as well.

“One of the things we identified was that it really takes a special individual to work with these populations of kids with special needs,” Freeman said. “You can’t just change the kids overnight.”

Wichita once offered bonuses - $1,500 a year - to teachers who worked in the district’s highest-poverty schools. School board members did away with that incentive in 2009 as part of cost-cutting measures aimed at saving teaching positions.

Now that Kansas lawmakers have approved a five-year, $525 million increase to school funding, districts like Wichita can and should reinstate additional pay for teachers working in the highest-stress situations.

Wichita teachers are starting the school year without a contract, after representatives for the district and United Teachers of Wichita declared an impasse in negotiations last month. A federal mediator has been appointed to settle the dispute.

At issue is teacher pay, as always, but also workload issues that are crucial to teacher retention. Three years ago, the union organized a first-ever “Contract Day,” during which teachers were urged to work only the hours required in their contract - no more, no less - to illustrate how much they do during off-hours.

District officials have acknowledged that stress can affect teachers’ physical and emotional health. A professional development session last year focused on compassion fatigue and self-care. The district also has offered finder’s fees and signing bonuses for certain hard-to-fill vacancies.

Teaching isn’t easy anywhere, particularly in urban districts like Wichita, where many students come from homes affected by trauma and poverty. But alternative schools are especially challenging, and the brave men and women who work there should be duly compensated.


The Topeka Capital-Journal, Aug. 10

Lack of oversight led to unread emails

There might be no better single encapsulation of the nearly decade-long failure of Kansas government than the story that broke last week about an email address in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

From August 2017 to January, emails sent to the Medicaid inspector general went unread.

As The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter reported, “Among emails received during that 18-month period … 95 alleged or sought information on reporting misconduct involving Medicaid, MediKan and SCHIP programs. Forty-two of the 95 emails contained information substantiated in whole or part once evaluated by the state.”

The inspector general’s office was originally in KDHE, but former Gov. Sam Brownback decided not to staff the office from 2014 until his departure. A frustrated Legislature moved the office to Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s department, and Sarah Fertig was finally confirmed at the beginning of this year.

Why the gap? It turned out that the employee who monitored the email (for the unstaffed office) left in 2017, and no one picked up the slack.

The frustrating part about this story is that it’s not about partisanship. The emails sent to the office were largely about Medicaid fraud. The GOP has traditionally been keenly interested in fraud and waste found in government programs. But the former governor’s reluctance to keep state government functioning efficiently meant that even commonsense oversight didn’t happen.

Think about it. For a full year-and-a-half, folks with tips about others who were gaming the system went unread. Who knows how much money or how many resources might have been saved if anyone had simply paid attention? And who knows how many other folks poorly served by KanCare might have benefited from these resources instead?

Whether run by a Republican or Democratic governor, state offices need to run. A conservative or liberal program needs staff and funding to make sure it operates properly. Without these resources, you simply have a full-scale breakdown in functioning government.

That’s not ideological. It’s malpractice.

Legislators are saying the right things now. Wichita Republican Sen. Gene Suellentrop said: “This will certainly be a significant topic on the agenda. There needs to be substantial improvement.”

Wichita Democratic Rep. John Carmichael said it was “a classic example of nobody attending to the store. The magnitude of the neglect comes as a surprise.”

That’s well and good. But as we move forward, lawmakers should look to ensure that such basic oversights can’t happen again.


The Lawrence Journal-World, Aug. 12

Closing the loophole on background checks on gun purchases shouldn’t be this hard

You don’t have to hate guns to like the idea of background checks on people looking to purchase firearms. With the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, that is a sentiment worth remembering.

National polls routinely find more than 90% of Americans support background checks for gun purchases. Many of those 90% of Americans really love guns. They get it: A background check isn’t an assault on the Second Amendment.

If America hopes to take steps forward in the wake of gun tragedies - and many steps beyond background checks are needed - we shouldn’t force people to pick false sides. Gun lovers and gun haters don’t always have to stand on opposite sides of a line. Instead, let’s see if we can’t build a new coalition around people who love logic.

Here are some ideas such a coalition could be built upon:

. Guns are going to be a part of American society for a long, long time to come. That bite of the apple already has been swallowed. America is not going to turn into a place like some European countries where gun ownership is rare. Just the sheer number of firearms already in circulation in America makes any idea to the contrary fanciful. Politicians who talk otherwise are harming realistic ideas for today.

. We already have a system in place to check the backgrounds of firearms purchasers. The FBI has been operating the National Instant Criminal Background Check System since 1998. The issue isn’t whether we should be checking backgrounds. The issue is whether we should close a loophole in the law. Sales between private parties that happen in the same state often aren’t subjected to the NICS background check. Focus efforts on closing that loophole. It isn’t the only thing that needs to be done, but it would produce a victory that could produce momentum for more. Remember, this isn’t inventing the wheel. This is airing up the tire.

. If “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” then logic dictates we should have a background check system that screens for mental illness. Hatred is tougher to define, but there are clinical definitions for mental illness. No one is assaulting the Second Amendment by saying that people with certain medical conditions shouldn’t be able to buy a gun until their health improves. As a country, we obviously already agree that state of mind and a certain capacity for responsibility are requisites for gun ownership. Otherwise, we would strike all laws prohibiting gun sales to children, given that the Second Amendment doesn’t specifically preclude such sales.

Closing the loophole on background checks is feasible. It actually can happen, if parties put aside old arguments and focus on what should be a relatively small task that appears to have overwhelming public support.

But, as previously noted, it will take more than background checks. Many of those debates can wait, but it would be inappropriate in the wake of these tragedies to not address the topic of white nationalism.

There is much that can be said, but a coalition built on logic easily should be able to agree on this: White nationalism, of course, is wrong. But further, leaders who use casual rhetoric surrounding race and immigration have the potential to do much harm - especially when you are the most quoted person on earth. President Trump’s re-election campaign has posted more than 2,000 ads on Facebook that include the word “invasion” to describe the immigration crisis on the southern border, according to a report in The New York Times. That is a dangerous short-selling of the meaning of invasion. Ask someone who lived in Poland or France in World War II, for example, if activity on the southern border seems like an invasion.

A coalition of logic would reject the idea that someone who peddles such rhetoric can’t comprehend how an unstable individual takes that analogy too far and injects literal bullets into the president’s figurative war.

Perhaps one of the greater questions facing our country is whether a coalition of logic-lovers can come to agree that leaders should be inclusive, humane and reasoned. Again, don’t be forced into picking false sides. You can be in favor of tougher border security without peddling rhetoric that so easily can lead to hate and violence.

On that point, voters should run their own background checks on all candidates prior to any future election.

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