It’s February, which means in addition to rotten weather, a non-ending demand for ice melt and consistently dirty cars, the Lincoln Public Schools budget process is beginning.
Last week, the school board’s finance committee got its first glimpse of what’s ahead. And the biggest news in that area is what’s not ahead: about $10 million in state aid.
Liz Standish, LPS associate superintendent of business affairs, told the committee the district is anticipating a $10 million drop in state aid -- to about $135 million.
State aid tends to lag behind whatever factors feed into the state aid’s formula. That means last year’s nearly $20 million jump in state aid reflected the substantial growth the district has seen in recent years.
Now things are slowing a little. Standish said enrollment growth will be closer to 300-400 new students next year, rather than 800 or more of recent years. This year's growth was lower, too.
The number of high-needs students -- both English language learners and low-income students eligible for free lunches through the federal lunch program -- are also going down slightly. The number of ELL students has dropped more rapidly -- about 270 fewer students than during the peak in 2016, Standish said.
She didn’t have estimates for the other revenue stream, which is likely to go up.
Standish did note that the county is undergoing a total revaluation of property, which typically results in an increase in property tax revenue.
Two years ago, when the county assessor did a total revaluation, LPS saw a 9 percent increase in property tax revenue -- $18.2 million.
Although some property owners have seen double-digit increases in their home values, Standish noted there’s been no word on what the average increase might be.
And there’s a stack of legislative bills that could affect various aspects of the LPS budgeting process.
Gov. Pete Ricketts wants the Legislature to propose a constitutional amendment that would cap the growth rate on local property taxes at 3 percent, though a tax reform package that offers different alternatives, including a hike in the state sales tax and eliminating several exemptions and credits.
Legislature aside, LPS is looking at several “bare-bones” increases in the coming budget session, Standish said. They include $10 million to pay for salary increases already approved in bargaining agreements; $1.2 million to pay for additional staff to keep up with enrollment growth, another $1 million to add special-education staff and $500,000 to add social workers and elementary school counselors.
LPS Operations Director Scott Wieskamp and other LPS officials took a trip to Denver recently to drum up ideas about how the district could further its sustainability practices.
The backdrop: a superintendent’s advisory committee reviewing the district’s building needs that will likely make recommendations on what should be included in the next bond issue. Those recommendations will undoubtedly include a new high school, if not other new schools.
Wieskamp, a proponent of sustainability practices, said he wants to look forward.
"I believe it’s our mission to take our vision of sustainability to the next level because we’re running out of natural resources,” he said. “We need to be better stewards of natural resource with what we’re doing.”
Among the ideas they’re looking at: solar technology being used in some Colorado schools.
Some schools there also used wind energy, which Wieskamp doesn’t think would be cost-effective here.
He did see several geothermal systems, including one modeled after the LPS systems.
“One thing it did was validate everything we’re doing is good,” he said.
A bit of hope for the future: Introducing a Beatrice middle-school student and a Lincoln East High School junior whose sense of service -- and the actual work that resulted from it -- earned them the Prudential Spirit of Community Award.
They’ll each get $1,000, an engraved silver medallion, a trip to Washington, D.C., with other winners in the national program and a chance to be named one of the nation’s top 10 volunteers of 2019.
Lincoln East’s Pranav Rajan, 16, co-founded a statewide organization where high school students can work on computer-based technology projects for community organizations. It’s been so successful his CodeForChange organization is starting to take root in California and New Jersey.
Jorja Boller, 10, a fifth-grader at Stoddard Elementary in Beatrice, created a charity that distributes gift bags to residents of several retirement homes at Christmas. She’s been volunteering at Beatrice Good Samaritan Center since she was 5 and her charity began after she opened a lemonade stand to raise money to make sure one of the residents got a Christmas gift. She ended up collecting enough money the first year to distribute 108 gift bags and it grew from there.