By PAUL HAMMEL
LINCOLN — Gov. Jim Pillen’s plan to further restrict spending by local school boards ran into opposition and concerns Wednesday from school district representatives.
During a public hearing on Legislative Bill 589, education representatives, including Cheryl Logan, superintendent of the Omaha Public Schools, said his plan would take away local control of local education, place an “arbitrary” cap on school spending at a time when inflation is 7% and would hamstring districts from raising wages to address a shortage of teachers and other staff.
Two caps already
Officials pointed out that school districts already deal with two caps that limit tax levy increases and budget increases. They questioned how a new cap would interact with those.
“LB 589 would make it harder for school boards to do the job they were elected to do,” Logan said.
“How are we supposed to attract new teachers when our resources are being choked off?” asked Dave Welsch, the president of the Milford School Board.
The bill, called the “School District Property Tax Limitation Act,” was introduced by State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion on behalf of the governor.
It would restrict increases in overall revenue used by a school district to no more than 3% a year, a cap the governor called “workable.” Briese said it would assure that Pillen’s proposed increases in state funding of local eduction result in reductions in local property taxes and not increased spending.
Amendment would soften cap
Briese passed out an amendment Wednesday that he said would soften the cap by allowing a district to raise spending by more than 3% if the district saw enrollment increases and increases in non-English speaking students and students in poverty.
His amendment also lowered the vote requirement for a school board to override the cap from 75% of board members to 70%.
The senator said the cap is an important aspect of a package of bills Pillen is pushing to increase state aid to schools and cut property taxes.
“It’s time we take a significant step in educational funding reform,” Briese said.
70% too high
Some senators on the Revenue Committee joined school representatives in questioning the need for such a high bar for overriding the proposed 3% cap. School districts need flexibility in budgeting, educational representatives said, and face unique problems.
Lincoln Sen. Eliot Bostar said no other governmental body needs a vote of 70% of its members to override a decision. For instance, in the Legislature, it takes a two-thirds vote of the entire Unicameral to end a filibuster.
Pillen, when he testified, took responsibility for the 70% threshold, saying that when he was in business, if he couldn’t get six of eight partners to agree, “it probably wasn’t a good idea.”
Voters could override cap
Voters, under LB 589, could override the proposed cap via a 60% approval at the polls. Currently, it takes a majority vote in a special election to allow a district to increase its spending beyond the current restrictions. The ability to override the cap, via a public vote or vote by a school board, led proponents of LB 589 to call it a “soft cap.”
Briese said the state’s largest districts could raise spending by up to 7% by a school board vote — the 3% cap plus up to 4% extra by voter approval.
Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who chairs the Revenue Committee, noted that representatives of several educational groups testified “neutral” on the bill, instead of as opponents.
That was a reflection of education groups’ support for the governor’s proposals to boost state funding of local schools — which ranks 49th nationally. But even the neutral testifiers criticized aspects of LB 589.
State aid too volatile
Logan testified as an opponent, saying the “volatility” of state aid has made OPS leery of shifting more funding of schools to the state.
Welsch, who testifies frequently on state aid issues, said it’s incorrect to say that schools are spending too much. State spending over the past decade has increased 3.2%, he noted, while education spending has gone up 3.09%.
“This appears to be a solution in search of a problem,” Welsch said.
Overall, critics of the bill outnumbered supporters in testifying Wednesday.
Supporters included several farm groups and conservative organizations such as Americans for Prosperity and the Lincoln Independent Business Association. One group, Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, testified that LB 589 didn’t go far enough to lower school spending.
Briese, in his closing remarks, said a budget cap he proposed last year was “more onerous” than this year’s proposal. He said he had made “numerous accommodations” this year to education groups, including Wednesday’s amendments.
“We continue to have a property tax crisis in this state,” he said. “This package is making an attempt to do something about it.”