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Educators file suit against ballot proposal that does away with tenure, mandates evaluations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Opponents of an initiative-petition proposal that requires a new evaluation process for teachers, and does away with tenure protections, have filed a lawsuit challenging the proposal’s ballot summary, which they say would mislead voters.

Among other things, the ballot summary doesn’t mention the word “tenure.”

Lawsuit advocates contend that the summary “is unfair and likely to deceive voters because it fails to mention that the constitutional amendment would permit school districts to fire or cut the pay of public school teachers and administrators without cause or due process, and it would create a burdensome one-size-fits all evaluation system mandating additional standardized testing of students.”

The suit, filed Friday in Cole County, contends that the proposal’s fiscal note is faulty and fails to reflect the cost to school districts.

A group supporting the ballot measure, the Children’s Education Council of Missouri, lamented the lawsuit and called the proposed changes a “forward-thinking initiative.”

“Our measure ensures that teachers are evaluated based on students’ academic growth,” said council state director Kate Casas. “As is done in other important and respected professions, our teachers deserve to be evaluated based on objective, not subjective, measures.

We are looking forward to taking this issue to the people of Missouri and to standing up for what’s right for kids,” added Casas. “If passed, this petition would change our state’s education system for the better by helping students and protecting great teachers.”

Casas noted that the ballot measure, if passed, would do away with teacher seniority as a protection during layoffs.  Her groups calls it "a damaging policy of 'last in, first out.' ”

The Missouri House recently defeated a similarly worded proposal, by a vote of 102-55, with critics citing its provisions that make teachers and school officials “at will’’ employees who can be easily fired.  Opponents also objected to the elimination, in effect, of teacher seniority.

A compromise measure with some similar aims – and the presumed support of House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka -- is expected to go before the chamber before the session ends May 17.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Cole County, calls the initiative measure “billionaire extremist Rex Sinquefield’s latest attempt to amend the Missouri Constitution.”

Sinquefield has helped fund and staff the Children’s Education Council of Missouri. Lawyer Marc Ellinger, who formally filed the petition, has said that Sinquefield supports the initiative but is not leading it.

Backers hope to collect enough signatures to put the ballot measure on the 2014 ballot.

The lawsuit was filed by four educators who, allies say, represent many more in the education community. Their statement took note of the controversy a few months ago, after Sinquefield came under fire for citing a newspaper column that linked the public school system to the Ku Klux Klan.

The four include Paul T. Morris, a retired teacher and second- term president of the School Board in the Ferguson-Florissant R-II School District:

"Sinquefield’s initiative removes local control of how school districts evaluate teachers. It financially punishes districts for using proven locally developed evaluations,” Morris said in a statement. “From my perspective as a school board member, maintaining local control is very important…It’s critical the ballot language accurately reflects the harm this ballot initiative creates."

Also filing the suit were: Dana Ruhl, business manager for the Hannibal Public School District; Kathy Steinhoff, a teacher in Columbia, Mo., and winner of the Horace Mann Teaching Excellence Award; and Darryl Johnson, a high school English teacher in Smithville, Mo. who was Missouri Teacher of the Year 2006-2007 and is to be inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame next month.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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