Kintner addresses the 2013 school funding battle
As I write, the full Legislature is just beginning debate on LB 407, the bill that will determine two of the most significant and complex issues of the 2013 session. The first decision made in this bill is how much in total state dollars will be needed to fund Nebraska’s public schools for the next upcoming two years. The second decision made in LB 407 is how that amount of money will be distributed among our 248 public school districts statewide.
Reaching a final determination on how much of your General Fund tax dollars to spend on state aid to the public schools requires the close coordination of two separate legislative committees. The Education Committee considers how to set funding priorities and policies for schools in its state aid to schools funding formula and the Appropriations Committee must then reconcile funding required for public schools with all of the other spending requests of state government agencies.
LB 407 was advanced from the Education Committee on a divided 5-3 vote of committee members. Those representing mostly urban school districts voted against the majority of committee members and have filed numerous proposed amendments that will be debated on the floor of the Legislature by all 49 state senators. Debate on this bill is expected to be quite lengthy, at least on the first round of its consideration.
There definitely exists an urban versus rural component to this complicated bill. That situation is likely when districts in our state are as diverse as the exceptionally large Omaha Public School District and very small Arthur Public School District which is located in a sparse area in western Nebraska.
The diversity of districts exists even within Legislative District 2. So, to the extent that school districts have essentially divided themselves into “sides” on the school funding debate, senators must set funding policies that reflect and embrace the vast differences in size of school districts.
The Appropriations Committee issued a “preliminary report” to the Legislature at the end of February. That report outlined helpful information regarding the level of state aid to schools funding – along with other major expenditure information. As a placeholder, the Appropriations Committee included a plan to spend approximately $125 million more in school state aid funding in the next two years.
Funding at that level, if approved, will amount to a 5 percent two-year overall increase. The percentage and dollar increases are very large because the public schools, through the state aid formula, are collectively receiving $837 million presently. These percentage increases would increase state aid appropriations to $879 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year and to $920 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
There are a lot of high tax dollar numbers involved in this issue. As you can imagine, spending nearly one billion dollars each year on funding to the public schools catches the attention of all senators – and taxpayers alike.
Education has always been an important spending priority. The Nebraska Constitution mandates that this area be a priority. Nebraskans, too, have clearly expressed interest in having competitive and vibrant public schools. The need to avoid pressuring property taxes also plays an important role in determining how much state funding should be allocated to school districts.
Countering those important points are the pressure that ever-increasing amounts of state aid to school districts places on the overall spending contained within the entire state budget.
At the Appropriations Committee’s preliminary budget numbers, the total state expenditures made to public school districts for state school aid amounts to 70 percent of all General Fund aid to local governments in the entire budget. When state expenditures for special education are added to that number, this amounts to 86 percent of all General Fund aid to local governments.
Numbers. Policy. Priorities. These items will abound in the LB 407 debate and consideration. The complexity of the school aid formula, in detail, is astounding.
One good tool that I have been reviewing to ready myself for this detailed debate is available on the Nebraska Department of Education’s public website. It is a tool that will provide “State Aid History By District.” Here is the website address for those who want to explore a twenty-year state aid funding history of each of the state’s school districts: www.education.ne.gov/FOS/ASPX/Search.aspx?id=9
I have reviewed profiles for each of the District 2 schools. The information is instructive to see the very large swings in state aid to schools experienced by our schools. There are many controversies ahead. As always, I appreciate hearing from you on these important matters. Please do not hesitate to contact me or my staff for information on any pending legislative matters, or if I may be of assistance. Please reach me at 1115 State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 (402-471-2613), or at my email: firstname.lastname@example.org.