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More teachers, early childhood classrooms drive 3% increase in LPS budget that keeps tax rate unchanged

Salary increases, more teachers and three additional early childhood classrooms drive much of a $14.8 million increase in the proposed 2019-20 budget for Lincoln Public Schools.

The budget would keep the tax rate the same as the current budget — 1 cent lower than the state-imposed lid — and would use money from the district's cash reserve to make up for a 9% reduction in state aid. 

Several Lincoln Board of Education members said the budget balances the need to give taxpayers property tax relief and still address the district's growing needs — and enrollment.

Board member Lanny Boswell said he can't understand how a growing district can get less state aid, but that it's important for LPS to live within its means as it addresses the district's facility needs, a reference to plans for a bond issue to build new schools. 

Don Mayhew said the budget manages to meet students' needs while still being mindful of taxpayers. 

"The cold reality is, people are getting clobbered by property valuations," he said.

The district's preliminary $458.7 million general fund budget includes $3.6 million from its cash reserve to help pay for the 3.3% increase over the current budget.

Liz Standish, associate superintendent for business affairs, said the district’s three-year planning model and cash reserve are used to navigate large swings from year to year in state aid and the uncertainty of property valuations linked to tax revenue.

Last year, several years of booming enrollment culminated in a nearly $20 million increase in state aid. But district officials, in turn, anticipated a significant drop this year and prepared for it by putting $7.4 million into the cash reserve, Standish said.

As anticipated, LPS' state aid dropped by $13.7 million — to $133 million.

The district, however, will benefit from another total property revaluation done by the Lancaster County Assessor's Office because of rapidly rising home prices.

LPS officials estimate property tax revenue will rise 6.5% — nearly $15 million — to $245 million districtwide.

The district proposes keeping the tax rate at $1.04 per $100 of valuation.

The district also has tax levies on bond debt and the Educational Service Unit, which handles much of the district’s professional development, assessment and evaluation work.

The tax rate for the bond debt hasn’t been finalized, but the total rate is unlikely to change much, and the ESU tax rate has remained the same for years.

Using last year’s bond and ESU tax rates as estimates, the total tax rate to support LPS for 2019-20 would be $1.239 per $100 of valuation.

The owner of a $184,800 home would pay $2,290 in taxes to LPS, which would be the same as last year unless the homeowner’s property value increase — a likelihood for many.

The school district’s tax levy comprises more than 60% of a Lincoln homeowner’s total tax bill.

As usual, the biggest spending increase for LPS will be an additional $10.4 million to pay for the negotiated 3.04% increase in salaries and benefits for teachers and other employees.

Other major increases include:

$1.7 million to add staff to keep up with enrollment increases estimated at 310 new students.

The money will be used to add 17 classroom teachers. It also will pay for a music teacher, art teacher and librarian at the behavior skills programs; an additional person to help with a program to help dropouts or near dropouts get their degrees; two additional counselors, a social worker and treatment nurse.

* $1.1 million to increase special-education staff, including three additional speech pathologists, three school psychologists and additional occupational therapists. It also would pay for a special-education coordinator at Moore Middle School; an assistant coordinator at Northeast; a stipend for schools’ concussion management teams; and shifting the grant-paid principal salaries of two of the behavior skills programs to the general fund.

* $531,100 for early childhood education, including three new half-day preschool classrooms and maintaining full-day programs at Holmes, Everett and Brownell elementary schools. 

* $1.1 million for various districtwide needs, including adding an electrician, additional bus routes, an increase in the amount of money the district agreed to contribute to the interlocal agreement with the city to bolster safety measures, increases to insurance premiums and additional contracted services for teachers at The Career Academy.

Standish said district officials were as conservative as possible with money from the cash reserve because of the uncertainty regarding state aid and property tax relief efforts in the Legislature and what that might mean to LPS in the future.

Property valuations aren't finalized until August, and if certified valuations result in more property tax revenue than anticipated (as it has the past couple of years), district officials recommend using it to reduce the amount of money needed from the cash reserve.

They'd also recommend adding one more classroom teacher — among the requests from departments not funded in this year's budget.

Standish said $3.8 million in needs identified by various departments during the budget process didn't get funded.

The requests included everything from more teachers, counselors, social workers and early childhood classrooms than the district budgeted for to more money for gifted mentors, library books and health office supplies.

The final board vote on the budget is scheduled for Aug. 27.

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Farmers, ethanol industry leaders hope for boost as Trump touts E15 rule change at plant in Council Bluffs

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — With the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy plant serving as a backdrop, President Donald Trump heaped praise on American farmers and touted his administration’s move to expand the sale of gasoline blended with 15% ethanol.

“I’ve worked very hard for ethanol,” the president told an audience of political supporters, corn farmers and ethanol industry officials packed inside a massive tent on the grounds of the plant in Council Bluffs.

Last October, Trump announced his intentions to lift restrictions on the sale of E15 during the summer months, a rule implemented by the Obama administration in 2011 to aid in reducing smog caused by vehicle emissions, saying he’d come through before the summer driving season.

As the deadline approached last month, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the rule Trump said would provide American drivers with cheap, clean fuel, further strengthening the country’s energy independence, while adding new jobs to “the hottest economy on earth” and supporting agriculture.

“As a candidate for president, I pledged to support our ethanol industry and to fight for the American farmer like no president has ever fought before,” Trump said. “We’re winning these fights, and you’re all patriots.”

Ethanol was a $2.8 billion business in Nebraska in 2017, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln economic impact study. Some 25 ethanol production facilities employ more than 1,400 people, producing more than 2 billion gallons of the grain-based fuel.

Roger Berry, administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board, said the previous EPA rule restricting sales of 15% ethanol-blended gasoline during the summer months was “the main barrier to what’s holding E15 back.”

“Retailers had to go out every year during the summertime, change the labeling to sell flex fuel, or stop selling,” Berry said, which prevented gas stations from developing a reliable base of customers for E15.

Offering the product year-round will be attractive to motorists — E15 typically costs 3 to 5 cents less than E10 or super-unleaded fuels and contains more octane, what Berry called “a better fuel at a lower cost” — and will drive further demand for ethanol.

In some cases, that increased demand will be immediate. Grand Island-based Bosselman Enterprises, for example, has 13 locations that sell E15 through blended dispensers capable of mixing unleaded gasoline and ethanol at the pump. Another two are set to come online soon, a Bosselman spokeswoman said, adding to the 58 stations offering E15 statewide.

Drivers who make the switch to E15 keep coming back, said Zach Griess, Bosselman's director of petroleum, which has contributed to substantial growth in demand for the product.

In 2016-17, Bosselman stations sold 300% more E15 than the previous fiscal year, he said, while E15 demand grew by 225% in 2017-18 and is projected to grow by another 400% this fiscal year.

Helping is growth in the number of ethanol-compatible vehicles. While vehicles built in 2001 or later are able to burn certain ethanol blends, car makers have recently produced engines capable of accepting E15.

Barry Smith, director of automotive technology and motorcycle repair at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, said ethanol can be used to run most modern internal combustion engines.

“Over the last 2 to 3 years, it almost becomes the outlier that vehicles won’t tolerate E15,” Smith said. “Just as recently as 6 to 8 years ago, only the few and far between would tolerate it.”

A quarter-century ago, mechanics would tell drivers grain-based alcohols such as ethanol could wear away the edges of rubber hoses in engines. That’s no longer true, he said.

If drivers are unsure whether or not they can fill their tanks with E15, they should consult their vehicle’s owner’s manual: “It’s usually pretty straightforward. They either will accept it or they won’t.”

Griess said over time, U.S. and Nebraska drivers have seemed to get past what he called a “stigma that E15 is harmful.” The recent rule change should solidify that belief, he said.

“The EPA lifting guidelines built on old rulings is telling people it’s no longer that way,” Griess said. “Once the customer decides to make that choice and it doesn’t affect their whole vehicle, we’re getting return customers.”

While ethanol suppliers and buyers are applauding the Trump administration’s move, many feel the effects of the rule change won’t be felt immediately.

Carl Sitzmann, CEO of E-Energy Adams in northern Gage County, which has about 50 employees and produces 100 million gallons of ethanol annually, said while more retail locations will be able to offer ethanol-blended products immediately, manufacturers won’t see instant increases to demand.

That will come slowly as more wholesale providers begin to offer their own E15 blends — which in turn will make the fuel more widely available.

Greater demand for ethanol in the future means more demand for corn — one of Nebraska’s staple ag commodities.

Sitzmann said the Adams plant sources its corn locally, produces ethanol for local use, and sells byproducts from the manufacturing process — distillers grains — to local cattle-feeding operations.

“If we produce more, we buy more corn from local farmers and sell our distillers grains to livestock feeders, which helps grow Nebraska,” he said.

Kelly Brunkhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board, said a frigid spring, record flooding across a large area of the state and an intensifying trade war led to much uncertainty for corn growers this year.

Before the flooding in March, there were to be an estimated 9.7 million acres of corn planted in Nebraska this year. Brunkhorst said while the official acres planted won’t be known until the end of the month, he estimates a few hundred thousand acres of corn won’t be planted.

Further uncertainty in planting had begun to bring corn prices back up, although that was moderated by talk of leveling tariffs against Mexico for what the president has described as a refusal by the U.S. neighbor to stop Central American migrants from entering the U.S.

With a deal between the U.S. and Mexico staving off another trade war last week, and the expansion of E15, which promises to increase the more than 600 million bushels of Nebraska-grown corn trucked to ethanol plants every year, Brunkhorst said corn growers’ prospects are improving.

“The outlook is brighter for the demand side of things,” he said.

But those involved in Nebraska’s ethanol industry, either directly or tangentially, said more could be done, such as scaling back the number of exemptions Trump’s EPA has granted to oil companies allowing them to waive ethanol-blending mandates.

Kevin Ross, a sixth-generation farmer from Minden, Iowa, praised Trump and other elected officials for following through on the promise to expand the sale of E15, but said the president and his administration has more work to do.

“The EPA’s oil refinery waivers threaten to undo your good works,” Ross said, adding they hold back the farm economies and ethanol industry from reaching their full potential. “I implore you to tackle this with the same tenacity and vigor you have on border security and other issues.”


The USA's Jordan Burroughs celebrates in April after a win at the United World Wrestling Freestyle World Cup in Iowa City, Iowa.

Entire generation, and their memories, are fading away

FORT NECESSITY NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD, Pennsylvania — There are pieces of burned wood, unearthed decades ago. There's a spoon, a wine-bottle fragment, assorted pottery shards — all carefully curated and elaborately explained.

And then there is the patrician voice of George Washington: "I'm certain," he intones solemnly, "that if we didn't attack the French first, they would have tried to ambush us. It was clear that they were on the offensive."

Except, as is obvious, it's not the voice of George Washington at all. It is a performer, reading from Washington's writings.

At Fort Necessity — the spot in southwestern Pennsylvania's forested hills where an early "world war" among the English, the French and Natives began — history feels fascinating, meticulously preserved and distant. Washington is 220 years gone, and the last survivor of the war that began here died in the early 1840s.

Last week, ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day reminded us that an entire generation is fading from the world stage. But what happens to the collective perception of major historical events when all participants and firsthand witnesses pass from living memory, when none of our fellow humans can still answer the question: What was it like to be there?

"When the actual witnesses and participants pass from the scene, we lose something — morally, intellectually and emotionally," says Gregory Vitarbo, a military and European historian at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Most everyone views history through the prism of the particular present moment. But when the present moment still includes those who were part of that history, it adds depth and resonance to the proceedings.

This was evident last week on Omaha Beach in Normandy. Survivors, most more than nine decades old, brought the commemorations alive in ways that would have been impossible were they all gone, as they undoubtedly will be in a decade or so.

They talked of deafening noise, of heads bobbing in the sea, of "the acrid smell of cordite" from shelling. Their very demeanors — limber young fighters become stooped, slow-moving great-grandfathers — seemed to shout of connections with a past that, on most days, now seems remote.

Some of this is intangible, a matter of feelings. The closer you are to a watershed moment, the more likely it is to capture interest. This is why, for example, a fender-bender on the street outside your home is far more likely to grab your attention then the same event three counties away.

Same thing goes for history. For many Americans growing up in the 1950s and '60s, World War II was very much a thing of the present — their fathers had fought, and they brought tales of the war to the dinner table. Today, the ranks of those emissaries have thinned and the direct impact is reduced, so naturally the conversation around it fades.

That's why so much effort in exhibiting history at museums and historic sites these days employs sight, sound and touch — even for events that predated the technology to capture such across platforms. It's also why elaborate historical reenactments, complete with clothing and firearms and language and food, have become so popular. It all points in the same direction — simulating what it might be like to talk to an actual participant.

That notion — keeping history as current as possible, and by extension as relevant as possible — has flourished in recent decades as immersive experiences become the norm and technology allows us to preserve more and more of the past's voices and vistas.

"It's not only what we remember, not only if we remember, but how we remember as well," says Fred L. Johnson III, a historian at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and a former U.S. Marine.

"We see, we hear, we feel, we touch, we smell," he says. "Once you hold the paper, once you touch the headstone, once you hear the words, once you see the face. Suddenly it's not an abstract issue. Suddenly it's not back then. Suddenly it's happening right now."

But even the most immersive technology is not an actual human being recounting momentous experiences. Some of the most famous words about the importance of living memory fighting the ticking clock came from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who said, "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness."

For those who carry history also carry credibility, even if they experienced only a fragment of a vast tapestry. They can say incontrovertibly what others can only speculate at; they can be definitive about things that others are trying to claim or distort.

Rebecca A. Adelman, who teaches media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says such people can act as "a hedge against the abstraction that can happen when events are reduced to chapters in history and the sensationalism that often accompanies pop culture depictions."

When that happens, she says, "these events can be more readily reduced to symbols that can mean whatever someone wants them to mean."

For years before his death in 2017, a Holocaust survivor named Morris Glass visited Meredith College and spoke with students about his experiences. The room was always packed with students, Vitarbo says, and the visit was a keystone of the academic year.

Why? Because he could take one of the most traumatic events of the past century and bring it to human scale — and, just as important, answer questions about it interactively and indisputably.

"In an age of disputed facts, disputed truth, personal truth, 'my truth' and 'your truth', how are we going to get at the actual truth when the actual participants are gone?" wonders Jerald Podair, co-editor of "The Routledge History of the Twentieth-Century United States."

"I am very concerned that when the last of these guys passes on, we're going to start making up our own truth," says Podair, who teaches history and American Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.