Senate Bill 8 House Education Committee.jpg

Woodford County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins, left, testifies for Senate Bill 8 with Sen. Steve West, R-Paris, during the Feb. 25, 2019, House Education Committee meeting. SB 8 passed on a 13-9 vote.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Legislation that would change the process by which teachers appeal disciplinary actions is one step closer to becoming law after passing the House Education Committee on Monday.

Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Steve West, cleared the panel on a 13-9 vote and heads to the House floor.

SB 8 would place attorneys familiar with administrative hearings on the tribunals that hear teachers' disciplinary appeals instead of laypeople. Tribunals can hear cases that involve teachers who have been fired, suspended without pay or publicly reprimanded.

Those lawyers would also chair the tribunals, conduct meetings as hearing officers and act as mediators under SB 8. The legislation calls for a mandatory prehearing conference, during which the hearing officers can rule on any motions before the tribunal, mediate a settlement or enter an agreed order if both parties resolve the matter.

Tribunals would also be limited to simply upholding or overturning superintendents' decisions rather than altering punishments for teachers.

"This bill, we believe, simply makes the process better," said Woodford County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins, who testified in favor of SB 8.

West, R-Paris, has sponsored similar measures in recent years that have not been successful. He brought the bill, he said, because most tribunals overturn the recommended actions against teachers, who must request such hearings.

West said that can have a "chilling effect" on superintendents who have strong cases supporting their disciplinary actions.

"A superintendent is not going to want to spend district dollars on a bad case or a good case that they think they'll lose," he said in his testimony.

The Kentucky Education Association, however, raised a number of concerns about SB 8 with the House Education Committee.

KEA Executive Director Mary Ruble said tribunals should retain their authority to amend punishments based on presented evidence.

"(Both sides) want to know that their circumstances and all the mitigating evidence is taken into account, and we believe that the only way that can truly be done is if the tribunal, as the third party, has a meaningful opportunity to determine whether the punishment that's being proposed fits the allegations," she said. "This bill would no longer allow that."

Ruble also questioned the decision to have a person on the tribunal acting as a mediator in the appeals process.

The bill is one of a few pieces of legislation that split Kentucky education groups. While KEA is against SB 8, organizations representing school boards and superintendents favor the measure.

The divide was evident on the House Education Committee.

Rep. Scott Lewis, a Hartford Republican and former superintendent of Ohio County Schools, said he supported the changes sought in SB 8 based on his experience with tribunals. In one case, Lewis said he fired a teacher only to have a tribunal agree with his reasoning but instead suspend the teacher without pay for a year.

"I don't see this as a harm to teachers at all," Lewis said. "I think it gives them a fair tribunal."

Rep. R. Travis Brenda, a Cartersville Republican and math teacher at Rockcastle County High School, was the only Republican who voted against SB 8. His vote, he said, reflected the feedback he received from teachers and administrators in his district.

"There have been some in favor of the changes," Brenda said. "I do like some of the stuff I see here, but I've had more that have contacted me not in favor of changes."

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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