Budget cuts for public schools

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

LINCOLN, Nebraska -- With Nebraska, as well as the rest of the nation, in financial turmoil the Legislature is searching for areas to make significant budget cuts. On Tuesday the Education Committee heard witnesses reactions to cutting state aid for public schools.

Committee Chairman Greg Adams of York proposed two bills to cut state aid by changing several elements of the state school aid formula for the next two years. His emphasis in these bills was to make balanced cuts to school districts across the state.

"If we're going to get at the kind of numbers that the budget is demanding, we can't nibble around the edges," Adams said. He proposed making large cuts to some of the core elements that make up that state aid. "This hurts. Bottom line, it hurts."

The proposed formula changes are all expressed in percentages, and committee members said exact dollar amounts won't be known until the bill is finalized.

However, Adams was hopeful for LB235, the less harsh of the two proposed bills. "Most school districts out there...have prepared for year one," Adams said.

Witnesses at the hearing supported the senator's statement.

Mark Shepard, associate superintendent for business affairs at Lincoln Public Schools, said, "This is the type of reduction that has been talked about and planned for for at least two years."

Nebraska Rural Community Schools spokesman Jon Habben also supported the bill saying it "could have been something completely different. It could have been a battleground...What (Adams) is really trying to do is make this work in school districts across the state."

This idea of balancing cuts was supported by nearly all the witnesses. Education authorities clearly realize the financial trouble, and they are willing to work to make the necessary budget cuts. However, it was clear from the hearing that LB236, the more severe of the bills, was too much for school officials to stomach.

In fact, it was too much even for Adams. "This is a terrible way to open your own bill, but I don't like it." Adams said the more drastic proposal "was a response. I wanted people to see what it would be like if we went farther."

While there were seven witnesses in support of the first proposal, not a single one supported the more harsh one.

Some witnesses said the second proposal would likely cause some schools to lose their accreditation.

George Conrad, for Douglas West Community Schools, and Virgil Harden, for Grand Island Public Schools, both expressed concern of losing accreditation because of reduction of student programs and services.

"I don't want to know, at this point," Adams said, "how it's going to impact the individual school districts." He said senators have to put together the state aid program first.

Several of the senators expressed doubt that either of these bills would make it through the Legislature.

Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids said, "At the end of the day it's probably going to be somewhere in the middle."

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