A common theme from some in Nebraska state government, including the governor and some key senators, has been that Nebraska does not have a school funding issue but a school spending issue. Reference has been made to “out-of-control” spending by school districts.
However, a simple study of higher and lower General Fund Operating Expenditure (GFOE) growth in schools in comparison to special education expenditure growth indicates different trends.
Fifty-one districts saw a growth exceeding 50% in GFOE over a 10-year period (2008-09 to 2017-18), and 42 of them -- 83% -- reported growth in special education expenditures greater than 50% as well.
This would not appear to be a coincidence. Forty-two districts experienced less than a 20% increase in GFOE. Fifteen, or 35.71%, saw a reduction in special education expenditures over the time frame.
Again, this would not appear to be a coincidence.
When studying the figures for individual school districts, it can be tempting to compare two districts and decide which school is efficient and which is inefficient. That is too simplistic of a way to look at things. It is imperative that one look deeper into the circumstances of individual districts to see what caused a growth in expenditures.
Superintendents whose districts districts experienced a 50% or greater GFOE growth over the 10 years were asked to share reasons why their district’s GFOE’s experienced such growth. In reviewing their responses, a few major themes emerged:
* Special education costs are increasing dramatically and having a major impact on school budgets. Not only are numbers growing, but the severity of needs of students is growing as well.
* Population growth, particularly in Nebraska’s “bedroom communities,” also has caused increases in those districts’ costs.
* Repair and maintenance of aging school buildings have necessitated growth in expenditures.
* Curricular changes and the increased use of technology are decisions local districts make that have a financial impact.
* Teacher experience and continuing education cause costs to go up.
Some respondents also made observations concerning growth in expenditures. These include:
* Unfunded mandates from both the federal and state levels have an impact on expenditures over which school districts have little or no control.
* Comparability requirements in teacher negotiations have an impact on expenditures.
* Boards of education often delay doing things they should be doing, such as facility renovations or vehicle purchases, in order to keep costs down.
Since 2009-10, the average annual increase in school spending on a statewide basis was at 3.25%. As a point of reference, the State of Nebraska average growth in spending over the same time frame has been 3.6%.
As ag land property valuations escalated, an increasing number of rural districts began to lose all of their state Equalization Aid. Today, 175 of 244 districts receive no equalization aid, most of them smaller rural districts. The result: a dramatic increase in the overreliance on property taxes as the main source of funding for most districts in the state of Nebraska.
Decisions to increase expenditures are made by local boards of education. Often this falls on those involved in agriculture. In a simple survey of Class B, C and D schools (classifications for basketball), we found the following:
* In 204 responding school districts from Class B, C or D, 56.36% of the board of education members were from agricultural-based families.
* In 188 responding school districts in Class C or D, 59.27% of the Board members were from agricultural-based families.
Simply put, those who have been most impacted by Nebraska’s growing reliance on property taxes -- our state’s farmers and ranchers -- also have, in many cases, approved increased school spending because they understand the money is being used to meet important educational and community needs.
Several senators have attempted to introduce legislation that would help to address the need for property tax relief and solve the school funding problems. To date, they have been unsuccessful.
We continue to hear that school spending is the problem. Instead, it's a school finance problem.