Leota Coats case against the Wellington school district in 1983 helped form the Kansas Due Process law for teachersApril 22, 2014 Cueball
by Linda Stinnett, Derby Weekly Informer — A Derby attorney’s work to help a Wellington teacher in the 1980s defined the rights which all Kansas teachers shared for nearly 40 years. That law was abolished this Monday when Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed the school finance law which affectively eliminated due process.
Lee Kinch served as the attorney for two cases which went before the Kansas Supreme Court in 1983. Each involved due process – the protection teachers were given under state legislation until it was repealed in Kansas on April 6 and signed into law by Brownback on April 21.
The case of Leota Coats, an eight-year language arts teacher and department chair at Wellington High School, came after her contract was not renewed in March 1980 when the school board decided to cut staffing due to declining enrollment.
According to the court opinion, Coats had the least seniority of the high school staff under consideration for non-renewal. The Wellington school board also considered her as unqualified to move to a junior high position, even though there were non-tenured teachers at that level.
“Ms. Coats, by all accounts, was the finest, most competent language arts teacher in the district,” Kinch said.
Kinch said he believes she was identified for the cut because she was one of the highest paid teachers.
Coats said she was a traditional teacher and expected her students to work hard in the classroom. She said she had “raised a ruckus” with administrators about the laziness of some students.
“I was being too hard on the football heroes,” she said.
Coats said other teachers advised her to leave the district.
“Everybody else said ‘Don’t rock the boat,’” she said.
Her husband suddenly suffered a series of heart attacks and became unable to work. She needed her job.
She decided to fight the decision and hired Kinch. A three-member hearing panel was called to look at the case. Under the guidelines of the law at that time, Coats was allowed to choose one member, the district to choose another member and both to agree on a third.
The school district called its own attorney to sit in its seat, a move Kinch objected to from the start.
The panel found the district had acted properly in letting Coats go. She appealed to district court and won her case so the school district appealed higher.
The Supreme Court ruled the school district acted improperly by using its own attorney to serve on the hearing panel. The court action affirmed that teachers should have a fair hearing in the due process law, Kinch said, and the board’s attorney is incapable of being fair and impartial.
“That really goes to the heart of due process,” Kinch said.
The court also upheld her tenure, saying she was certified to teach at the junior high level and the school district had to offer her that opportunity.
“The only criticism of her was that she demanded excellence of her students and graded them accordingly,” the court wrote in its ruling.
Kinch also represented a teacher from Burden, Dwight Haddock, who was a vocational agriculture teacher in the small farming community, FFA sponsor and served as the negotiator for the teachers.
“He was an effective negotiator and apparently ruffled the feathers of some board members by aggressive tactics,” Kinch said.
In fact, during court hearings, Kinch asked the school superintendent why the district had suddenly moved from giving Haddock high evaluations to low ones. Kinch asked if one of the reasons was that he served as the chief negotiator for the NEA.
“That was one of his problems, yes,” court records show the superintendent said.
While Haddock was chief negotiator for the teachers, the superintendent had served as negotiator for the school district. No agreement was reached in the summer of 1978 and the teachers received unilateral contracts.
Haddock was served his notice of non-renewal of his contract in April 1979. He, too, lost his case with the local panel, appealed to the district court and won.
After winning the appeal, the school district took the fight to the appeals court. The district added reasons for its decision to those initially listed in the notice of non-renewal given to Haddock.
“That is a palpable denial of due process,” Kinch said.
After winning her case, Coats said life for her in the Wellington school district became “very, very tense.” The court told the school district it had to give her a job and pay back wages. She was offered the junior high position, but told she had to take a coaching position. Coats said she did not know anything about coaching.
She and the district agreed on a cash settlement and she stayed with a teaching job at Belle Plaine High School, where she taught for 20 years.
Now retired and living in Howard, Coats remains active in KNEA, the state teachers’ union, as a volunteer. She lobbies legislators and volunteers in schools through KNEA activities for retired teachers.
“We’re involved in as much as we can in volunteering in schools,” she said. “We’re dedicated to them. That’s what we dedicated our lives to.”
Linda Stinnett is the managing editor of the Derby Informer. She was the news editor for the Wellington Daily News from 1997 to 2002.
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