Category Archives: Education Committee

Learning Community Hearings on Monday

Monday is a big day for those concerned about the tax issues raised by the Learning Community law that took effect this year. Three bills being considered by the Education Committee (Room 1525, 1:30pm) appear to address some of these issues.

LB22, introduced by Sen. Mike Friend of District 10 (Omaha),  is a bill “to eliminate the double-taxation of school districts in a learning community by removing the taxing authority of Educational Service Units that are comprised of those districts”, according to his Statement of Intent.

LB387 eliminates the ability the of a learning community to levy taxes for the general fund budgets and special building funds of the member districts and lets them levy their own taxes for these purposes just like all the other school districts. It also changes the law regarding calculation of distribution of state aid to school districts so that so that all districts are  treated the same regardless of their membership in a learning community. This bill was introduced by Tim Gay of District 14 (Papillion).

And last but not least is LB391, the main thrust of which takes the responsibility for distributing the collected learning community tax revenues to the school districts away from the learning community and gives it to the county treasurers. There is also an adjustment to the formula used to calculate the distribution. This bill was introduced by Sen. Greg Adams of District 24 (York). There’s a better summary of this bill in the Fiscal Note.

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Watching Education

I am a member of my local school board, so attended a “legislative conference” with school board members and administrators of public schools from around the state yesterday.  During this conference, Governor Heineman spoke to us, and pointed to the fact that while Nebraska is one of only 9 (or 7 depending on the measure you use) states in the country not currently in fiscal crisis, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to feel the pinch.  The state has about $600 million in cash reserves, and the Governor indicated that based on forecasts, we probably needed to figure on dipping into that over the next 2-4 years, as state revenues were likely to show shortfalls.

Given the nature of the 200 or so that he was speaking to, the Governor wanted to point out that of the much smaller than planned budget increase that he was planning, education would still get about 85% of that, and that Health and Human Services would get something like 13%, with the remainder being spread throughout the many other areas of government expenditures.

How much education gets is a big deal in the School Board/Administrator community.  Our school district gets about 40 percent of its operating budget from State Aid funds, and a decrease in the yearly increase means a lower operating budget for the school district.

If I were in charge of schools, I could probably find plenty of “extras” to cut–however I recognize, as well, that there are costs associated with education that wouldn’t have even been considered when I was in school: the increased cost of testing and and filling out paperwork to be in compliance with federal and state standards; a far higher expectation on school districts to educate the profoundly disabled (whereas when I was in school, “special ed” seemed to be limited to those who were mildly or moderately  mentally disabled); and a different society which places far more expectations on the school to teach lessons that parents and churches were once thought to be widely responsible for.  In addtion, the more mobile nature of our society, and fewer stable 2 parent families (and more blended families) seems to add a different element of discipline problems that would have been seen 30 to 40 years ago.

That being said, the lust for more money was evident at this meeting.  Question and answer periods with the Governor, as well as the Chairs of the Education and Appropriations Committees of the Legislature suggested to me a certain unwillingness of some Administrators and Boards to come to terms with what’s ahead, and to start tightening the belts now.  Several questions related directly to the Federal Stimulus Package: “Have you been in contact with people in Washington–is there any chance that some of that stimulus money will be coming our way and can make up for the shortfall in our state dollars?”

To their credit, the Governor and the Chairs all said: “I wouldn’t count on it until I see it.”  And Governor Heineman’s point was especially poignant–“We don’t know what kinds of strings are going to be attached to any stimulus dollars.”

Of course anytime the government–state or federal–passes money to local school boards, it inevitably comes with some sort of strings attached.  My question, as I leaned over to our Superintendent and the other Board member with us from our town: “Why are they counting on money from the Feds?  Taxpayers are still footing the bill in one way or the other–either through increased taxes, the higher debt load, or through the “invisible tax” of inflation when all that money that doesn’t exist gets dumped into the system.”  In the latter instance, the money we get from the Feds isn’t going to help anyone–because the prices for things we need will got up and the money we get won’t buy the same amount as “today’s dollars.”

Keep an eye on the Education Committee.  The Chair (Sen. Greg Adams) has promised to try to “leave you alone” as much as possible this year, limiting additional regulations, changes in aid formula, etc.  We’ll see if he can keep that promise.

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Who’s Teaching Who?

I must once again give a nod to the Associated Press for pointing out in a news story dated 1/13/09 stating that “School administrators AREN’T expected to back a plan to dictate school spending from the Capitol.”

Nor should they. Under the bill (LB240) introduced by Omaha’s State Senator Pahls, it would be mandatory for school districts to spend no less than 65% of their tax dollars on “classroom instruction.” I’m not sure where Senator Pahls came up with that magic number, but I AM sure that the people who know how to best spend their money are the local school boards. I suppose that it is most certainly within the legislature’s power to make such a decision… but is it within their right? More importantly, is it prudent?

As active and educated voters, ALL Nebraskans should have every right to tell their elected officials (in this case, their local school boards) how their tax dollars should be spent. This bill gives the voter less authority. You vote for ALL of the school board members in your district – You only vote for ONE state senator.

This certainly looks like another bill that we need to keep an eye on.

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