Recent Kansas Editorials
Posted September 5
The Kansas City Star, Sept. 4
Local EPA administrator could be bad news for your air and water
Last week, the Trump administration quietly appointed a new acting administrator for the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency, headquartered in Lenexa.
Cathy Stepp, 54, resigned her position as secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources to take the job here.
We hope she's up to the task. But there are reasons for deep concern.
Stepp's EPA office will oversee enforcement for an astonishingly wide range of issues — from leaking oil tanks to children's health to clean air and water. And there are signs she may favor corporate polluters over the health and safety of millions of people in the four-state region.
Her record in Wisconsin has been highly controversial. Democrats and environmentalists in the state have repeatedly accused Stepp of prioritizing the interests of businesses and polluters instead of protecting clean air and water.
"Putting Cathy Stepp in charge of the (Department of Natural Resources) is like putting Lindsay Lohan in charge of a rehab center," a Democrat said in 2010 when Gov. Scott Walker named her to the post.
In Wisconsin, Stepp cut funding for her department's science and research. Fines for environmental violations dropped dramatically, reaching a 30-year low in 2015.
A state audit said the department failed to issue violation notices to known wastewater polluters almost 95 percent of the time between 2005 and 2014.
And Stepp appears to be a serious climate change skeptic. Last year, the department's website scrubbed references to human-caused climate change, a move that outraged environmental groups in Wisconsin.
The consequences were clear, according to Paul A. Smith, a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"Whether the issue was high capacity wells, mining or removing environmental rules . the DNR under Stepp went silent or rolled over to assist business interests," he wrote last week.
Everyone should be worried by this record. As acting head of the Region 7 EPA, she'll supervise 450 workers whose jobs are to protect the environment in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. She does not need Senate approval.
Stepp wasn't available for an interview, but an agency spokesman said Stepp "has consistently strived to promote clean air, water and land while ensuring regulatory certainty at the state level to promote a strong and growing economy."
Those are code words for an overly business-friendly approach. Coupled with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's quiet dismantling of the agency, the four-state region may have to fight to protect its environmental health.
Perhaps, as an initial gesture, Stepp could swing by Houston on her way to Lenexa. Then she can tell us if she thinks climate change is real and a problem.
The Topeka Capital Journal, Sept. 4
Teacher salary increase makes sense in Shawnee County, elsewhere
In the U.S., the average starting salary for K-12 teachers is in the mid-$30,000 range. To college students who are trying to decide what they want to do with their lives, this meager pay suggests that our society doesn't value the work teachers do. And to people who've already decided to become teachers, it makes the mid-career switch to a higher-paying profession much more attractive. Many workers who have comparable levels of education (such as registered nurses, insurance appraisers and counselors) make considerably more money.
According to a 2016 report issued by the Economic Policy Institute, this gap has only been widening since the mid-1990s. In 1994, public school teachers' weekly wages were 1.8 percent lower than workers in comparable fields — a number that exploded to 17 percent by 2015.
Even when you factor in the superior benefits teachers often receive, the differential remains around 11.1 percent. Moreover, EPI found that there wasn't a single state in the country where teachers could expect to make more than the average salary of college graduates. Kansas is in the bottom 15 on this measure — our teachers make an average of 73.9 percent as much as other graduates.
Average, inflation-adjusted weekly wages for teachers actually decreased between 1996 and 2015 — not a promising sign for college students who are considering teaching. However, this doesn't mean states are investing less in education overall — as per-pupil spending has risen across the country, teacher salaries have remained static. While people often note that teachers get summers "off" and don't work a traditional nine-to-five schedule, this argument ignores the fact that a substantial proportion of teachers have to work second jobs, tutor, etc. during the summer. They also frequently pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, and some of them even work a second job during the school year.
These are just a few of the reasons why the recent pay increases for teachers at Shawnee County school districts — as well as districts across Kansas — should be welcomed by taxpayers.
Teachers at USD 501 will receive a 4.4 percent salary increase, while Shawnee Heights USD 450 teachers will receive 2.5 percent; Silver Lake USD 372 will receive 2.4 percent; and Auburn-Washburn USD 437 will receive 4.7 percent. This money is available as a result of the state's new school finance formula, which lawmakers passed in June.
Silver Lake superintendent Tim Hallacy points out that the pay increase is crucial after districts have been dealing with block grants and budget cuts: "Our salaries have been stagnant for the past six or seven years. We're grateful to put more money toward salaries."
Kansas has dealt with several teacher shortages over the past few years, and legislation passed in 2013 has allowed districts to hire unlicensed teachers. In 2015, more than 3,700 teachers retired or left the state, and some districts struggled to replace them. One Kansas City school board member argued that the profession isn't attracting enough college graduates: "They're not paid enough for college graduates . they're not as highly respected as they should be." Even if teacher recruitment and retention weren't issues in our state, increasing teacher pay would still be the right thing to do.
It's long past time to start valuing our teachers more, and giving them fair compensation is the best place to start.
Lawrence Journal-World, Sept. 5
Approve new police review board
The Lawrence City Commission should adopt new guidelines for the community review board that handles complaints against the police department.
At its meeting tonight, the commission will consider creating a new board to replace the Citizen Advisory Board for Fair and Impartial Policing. The new board would have additional responsibilities and oversight regarding complaints of police misconduct, including complaints of bias. The new board would accept complaints regarding police misconduct or bias from the public, which would be forwarded to the police for investigation. That differs from the current system, under which complaints about the police department go to the department itself. The advisory board receives only summaries from the police department at the end of the investigation.
"This new board would be looking into allegations of racial or other bias-based policing and actually hearing what the police department investigated, and be more involved with it," Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said.
And for some bias complaints, the board's duties would go beyond just accepting complaints. The ordinance defines bias as the unreasonable use of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender or religion by a law enforcement officer in deciding to initiate a law enforcement action.
The board would be able to review bias investigations if the person who makes the complaint disagrees with the finding of the police department's investigation and files a written appeal. In that case, the board would review the investigation "to determine if further investigation is needed," and would then make a written recommendation to the city manager for review.
There were 17 complaints filed against the police department in 2016.
All complaints are confidential, and reviews of police investigations done by the board would be done in executive session. Board members would sign a confidentiality agreement.
The Lawrence Police Officers' Association has asked that public comment at board meetings be limited to regular agenda items unrelated to a complaint. That's too restrictive. Public boards should allow for general public comment.
The Citizen Advisory Board for Fair and Impartial Policing has limited authority to have meaningful impact on complaints against police. The new board has increased but appropriate authority to review allegations of police misconduct and bias. The board should be approved.