Mike Harris sitting at a table.
Mike Harris is the vice president of United Teachers of Wichita, the local teachers union. (Alex Unruh/The Wichita Beacon)

By next school year, Wichita Public Schools will have a new superintendent. Dr. Alicia Thompson will be retiring at the end of the 2022-23 school year after five years in the position. The district is already deep into the search process. The change in leadership brings new opportunities to address the concerns of teachers in Wichita. 

Wichita has a diverse student body that is 37% Hispanic and 19% Black, with students coming from homes that speak 112 different languages. USD 259 has more than 47,500 students spread across 90 schools, making it the largest school district in Kansas with the largest annual budget at nearly $1 billion. 

The Wichita Beacon asked the vice president of United Teachers of Wichita, Mike Harris, to talk about what changes teachers want to see. School choice, safety, teacher retention and staff shortages were all brought up as concerns at the forefront of teachers’ minds. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

USD 259 is looking for a new superintendent. As a leader of the teachers union, what do you believe Wichita teachers are looking for in this search?

Every teacher in USD 259 is excited to get a leader that’s willing to and ready to come in and tackle the tough challenges that our school district faces. We know they’re not unique to Wichita, but we have always held that Wichita public schools are the best of the best. We don’t want to lower our standards. 

What are those characteristics that Wichita teachers think the next superintendent needs? 

Number one was classroom experience. They need to understand what it’s like to have boots on the ground and somebody who could take theory and put it into practice. 

Number two is someone who promotes a positive and professional environment with mutual trust and respect among employees. One of the things most important to us teachers is the ability to have constructive dialogue with district leadership and their opinions are respected and implemented. 

Three is they should have the ability to develop and maintain reciprocal relationships between everyone and be willing to listen to input as a decision maker. 

All of that comes to communicating and streamlining. What our educators would like to see is the creation of a more efficient model, which allows them to spend more time practicing their craft and teaching. 

Are you hearing more support for getting an internal candidate or an external one for the job?

You know, our community has always been proud of hiring from within and celebrating the greatness of our people. But there are definitely a lot of people that think that it may be time to look beyond and listen to people that might have additional experiences or could bring valuable insight to our community.

We have been seeing a lot of concern for student and teacher safety at USD 259 schools right now. How are teachers feeling now in 2023?

On the mind of every teacher is safety in their classrooms and in the hallways and in schools. We’ve had just an overabundance of teachers that are being threatened, physically threatened, physically attacked, physically hurt when trying to stop students. 

And that’s not to say that our schools are bad and broken. We know that a small percentage of kids causes a lot of problems, but they disrupt the learning of all of our students. Our teachers’ biggest concern right now is finding a way to create the right type of programs and services to get kids who are having a difficult time. We need to find what they need to become successful, while simultaneously allowing students to have a safe, productive learning environment. That’s a tough balance.

Are you hearing any ideas that are sticking with a lot of Wichita teachers in the union on how you’re better able to increase that safety?

I want to stress that the district has taken steps. And we’re working through this. The district’s invested heavily in behavior support, social emotional learning and trauma-informed practices. I think that for the teachers the perspective is, there’s certain behaviors that regardless of why they happen, there has to be consequences. And it’s not because we don’t love our students or we don’t want them to succeed. It’s just, if you punch a teacher in the face, we can’t have you back in that environment, because our teachers, if they don’t feel safe, won’t continue to work in our schools and our communities. 

This is a topic heavily tied to mental health. Do you think those needs for students are being met?

I don’t ever want to be construed as saying that the district’s not trying to invest, because USD 259 has worked diligently post-pandemic, post-COVID, to get the type of support needed to the kids. And I think the long-term challenge that we have is, a lot of the programs and resources that we’ve created have been funded by federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) dollars. Those extra grants are going to  run out after the end of the next school year, and our school district is going to have to face some tough choices long term about what to do with the positions and the resources hired with that money. Those aren’t long-term funding streams — we’re going to have a budget crisis here in a couple of years and we are going to have to make some serious decisions about how we proceed. 

Speaking of hiring, there is still a shortage of teachers. What reasons are you hearing from your colleagues for why this issue persists? 

I think the number one mission of United Teachers of Wichita right now is to work with our school board and our district leaders to find ways to attract and retain educators, because we’re in competition with every surrounding district in our area and across the state. And traditionally these conversations start with talking about compensation and pay. Teachers, especially in a tight job market, have found that they have other opportunities and they can pursue other avenues aside from teaching. 

Number two is creating safe classrooms where teachers are able to do the thing that they love. Every teacher that works for USD 259 does it because they love their job and they want to be a part of education, and we’ve got to create an environment that entices them. 

The third reason is workload. We’ve created a workload nightmare for teachers that often isn’t considered by the people that dream up the ideas. We’ve added, added and added programs, and everything we’ve added requires more documentation and time and training to implement. We need to take a look back and see what’s working, what’s not working and find a better way. Teachers are just tired and burned out. 

One of the major statewide topics in education right now is “school choice,” which would allow parents “vouchers” to direct state dollars to a private school. How would its implementation affect Wichita?

There probably couldn’t be anything more damning to public education in Wichita than to lose significant portions of funding. You’re just lessening the amount of money that you have and spreading it thin. The damage that’s done in that situation is done to the most vulnerable populations who have the least ability to provide for themselves — it’s our most needy students that will lose out.

At the end of the day, the amount of money for the voucher is not going to be enough for your lower-class, lower middle-class families to move their kids into a private school in Wichita. A voucher doesn’t pay for full tuition.

What we’ve seen historically, you have for-profit charter schools that pop up. And those charter schools aren’t regulated or monitored in terms of the curriculum, their standards or how they spend their money. Some of them have been great. Many of them have failed because there’s a lack of oversight. 

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.