Class I debate continues in the Legislature

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Almost annually, there is an attempt in the Nebraska Legislature to merge elementary-only Class I districts into K-12 districts. This year is no exception, as the chairman of the legislature's Education Committee, State Sen. Ron Raikes, has offered Legislative Bill 126.

The bill would merge elementary-only school districts, called Class I districts, into K-12 districts by the start of the 2006-07 school term. This would have a local effect as there are two Class I's near McCook: District 8, located south of town, and District 41, located north of McCook alongside U.S. Highway 83.

As it stands now, both districts are affiliated with McCook School District 17. Taxes are collected by the McCook district, which then pays the expenses for the Class I districts.

Richard Klein of rural McCook, a strong supporter of Class I Districts, believes the current system is working well and does not need to be changed. "Sen. Raikes' bill would not save money and it would not improve the quality of education," he said.

What Klein fears, if Legislative Bill 126 is passed, is that K-12 districts would move quickly to close the Class I elementary schools. If that were to happen, Klein says the additional cost to bus students would quickly offset any other savings that might occur.

In most cases -- such as at District 8 -- Klein contends the quality of education at Class I's compares well with that of K-12 districts. There are 37 students at District 8, of whom several are option students from McCook and Culbertson. There are three full-time teachers, plus a special education teacher who helps in the classroom, as well as part-time computer and art teachers.

In Klein's view, Class I's are especially needed where distance is a factor. "There are places in the Sandhills where students would be 100 miles from school if Class I's were closed," he said. Even in this area, long bus trips for grade schoolers would be required if Class I schools were to be shut down.

On the other side of the argument, those in favor of LB126 argue that it's unfair for Class I districts to spend considerably more per pupil to educate their students than do larger K-12 districts. They see school mergers as an equity -- or fairness -- issue.

The way it is now, Klein said Class I schools can continue in existence as long as they serve the needs of students and the district patrons. He sees no need for that practice to be changed.

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