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'Finally, a bill that we can say yes to': Most public schools back bill that changes school funding

Some believe it will lower property taxes
Posted at 6:51 PM, Jan 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-25 19:51:51-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — Superintendent of Chadron Public Schools Ginger Meyer said what many in the hearing room at the state capitol were thinking on Tuesday.

“Finally, a bill that we can say yes to instead of always saying 'no, no, no,'” said Meyer.

A proposal to drastically change the way schools are funded and that some believe would lower property taxes was presented in the education committee meeting of the Nebraska Legislature.

It's a proposal, unlike past efforts, that has the backing of most school systems across the state.

“This bill is an overall net positive not only for Adams Central but for many other school districts in the state,” said Shawn Scott, superintendent of Adams Central Public Schools.

The bill would dramatically increase the amount of money the state pays to public schools, eventually more than $700 million annually.

It would guarantee every school gets at least $1,100 per student and ups the amount of income taxes going to school districts.

It would also require the state to give equalization aid to over 60 more public school districts. In total, it would move Nebraska from 46th to somewhere around 15th in total state aid to public schools.

All this extra money would allow and, to an extent, require school districts to lower their property taxes, some by as much as 40% or more.

“This would fund our school, which we know we’re not doing right now,” said Superintendent of Nebraska City Public Schools Mark Fritch.

He says they already charge their residents the maximum in property taxes, which is a levy of $1.05 per $100 of taxable value, and are having issues paying for maintenance and teachers.

He says this bill would fund the school and allow residents to pay less in taxes.

“Both our school district and our community taxpayers would be winners under the proposed provisions of this bill,” said Fritch.

But that extra $700 million is coming from somewhere. In this case it would largely take from the Property Tax Incentive Act, which allows property owners to claim tax credits.

That plan was passed in 2020 as part of the Legislature’s ‘grand compromise’ bargain that was later celebrated by many state senators and Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The tax credits would be re-purposed to go towards schools in the new school finance plan. Along with taking a half percent of every sales tax dollar the state collects.

While some senators were skeptical due to the property tax savings the state would give up, Superintendent of Omaha Public Schools Dr. Cheryl Logan said it doesn’t work for the biggest and most diverse district in the state.

“This plan actually creates more unpredictability,” said Logan.

In the plan, the state would cover another 20% of OPS’s budget. Logan fears what happens when and if the economy goes on a downturn.

“Why would any school district rely on the promises of the Legislature knowing that the next one can, and likely will, change them,” said Logan.

“We are understandably skeptical that the state will be able to maintain the funding levels over the long term.”