Those “in the know” claim school aid is always a battle between large schools and our smaller school systems in what they like to call “out-state” Nebraska. I guess that is usually somewhat true, but no winners or losers were picked at the beginning of the week when it came to making decisions on the state aid formula to schools. LB407, introduced by Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, came to the forefront on Monday morning and was debated all day with no consensus being reached. This bill would make changes to the state aid formula, often referred to as TEEOSA (Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act), some would be temporary and some would be permanent. This is a complicated issue and formula. I will not pretend to understand all of the inner workings of the formula. In theory, equalized aid takes into account the resources and the needs of each school. You also need to understand that school districts have two mandates that they have to operate under – the first being the amount they can increase their spending from one year to the next (typically this is capped at 2.5%) and $1.05 they are allowed to collect by way of a property tax levy against every $100 that property is valued at. The problem we are having is that the larger schools (Omaha, Lincoln and few others) feel they need more aid. For the most part the large schools have high levies, close to or at the $1.05 rate limit, while their cost per student is fairly low whereas the small schools have a high per student cost. The majority of our Nebraska students are in those larger schools where residential property values really have not increased much. The value of farmland has been going up in the areas where we do not have many students. I am unaware of any farmer that enjoys paying higher and higher property taxes especially as we have seen in recent years. The increase in value of the land does not make it produce more, it just costs more to own.
While we need to focus on the needs of all of our students regardless the size of the school, large or small, urban or rural, I cannot ignore the impact this proposal will have on the schools in our district, District 17. Of the ten schools in our district, nine of them would lose some state funding, under the original bill. Losses would have ranged from $95,720 to $263,512 for the 2013-14 year.
By Thursday morning, a compromise had been reached which allowed the bill to be advanced to Select File with a 42-0 vote. The compromise left two allowances in place that provide more aid to schools that have a longer school year and have teachers with advanced coursework or degrees. There will be more work done on the bill between now and select file. While I have yet to see the exact numbers on how the compromise will impact our schools in district 17, it will allow roughly 114 mostly small, rural school districts to get aid which they have not qualified for before. This whole financing system is in need of change. I am hopeful, though not overly confidant, that the tax review that will take place this summer and fall might give us a better, more fair system.
When LB232, introduced by Senator Steve Lathrop of Omaha, was on General File I became very interested in the bill that would give Supreme Court judges a 5% pay increase this year and another 5% next year. While I have respect for judges and I understand that they could probably make more money in the private sector, I think that more than 10% over the next two years is excessive. All of the judges throughout the state will get the same percent of raise because this creates a trickledown effect for judges across Nebraska. On Tuesday I introduced an amendment that would change it from 5% for each of the next two years to 2.5% for each of those years. I thought this was a good faith effort to give an increase without going overboard. On Thursday, Senator Lathrop decided to amend LB232 into LB306 a bill introduced by Senator Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha that dealt solely with judges’ retirement contributions. After over an hour of debate it was determined that he could in fact amend LB232 into LB306. My amendment was debated and unfortunately it only received 16 votes and therefore failed to be adopted. After spending most of the morning debating this bill LB306 as amended by LB232 was advanced to Final Reading. I will continue to oppose this bill (though there is little to no chance that I can stop it) on the principle that I do not believe we have fully recovered from the recession and we have legislation with major price tags attached to them yet to be discussed this session. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no one else in the state getting anywhere near this large a raise. I lost this fight and I am sorry.