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Districts find ways to combat revenue uncertainty

August 5, 2018

Statistically speaking, Nebraska students separate themselves from many of their out-of-state peers in a variety of different categories.

“In really pretty much everything,” said Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA) on Thursday while visiting The Columbus Telegram. “(Nebraska has the) third highest graduation rate in the nation, we have the second highest ACT scores where 85 percent or more of the kids take the ACT; we have all of these very positive things happening.”

The challenge at hand, she said, is finding a way to continue propelling students down the path of success in the classroom while combating outside problems, one of which is public school funding.

Much of this funding, she said, is comprised of sales, income and property taxes. In an effort to illustrate how the different streams of school revenue should interact, Benson compared the tax trio to a three-legged stool.

“That stool can’t stand right now because it’s not balanced,” she said. “And so we are really looking at working with coalitions, working with our legislatures and working with our teachers, and our teachers are stakeholders. They are our family, neighbors and taxpayers, and we want them to also have an equitable way to fund schools.”

Benson said Nebraska is currently 49th in the United States in the amount of state aid dollars given to schools, which presents the challenge of educators having to figure out constructive solutions to finding money streams to support the state’s approximately 250 educational districts.

In Nebraska, a disproportional chunk of public school funding is dependent upon property taxes, she said.

“Unfortunately, it’s a very challenging thing to talk about,” Benson said. “Taxes are always a really challenging thing to talk about and there isn’t always a clear solution.”

With school leaders in districts across the state – and nation – tightening their belts in regard to spending, 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations like the Columbus Public Schools Foundation have been game changers in regard to allocating tax-deductible funds around school districts fulfilling students’ needs.

“At some point, it started becoming advantageous for people to go (donate) through a 501(c)3 because, I think, more and more people are generous and willing to give back,” Columbus High School Principal Steve Woodside said. “The foundation fulfills a need and puts a system into place for people to give and have a purpose and a cause.”

With the current monetary uncertainty being faced by numerous Nebraska public school districts, diversifying money streams through an organization like the CPS Foundation pays dividends.

“It expands your potential that you might not have under your current system,” Woodside said. “The way school funding is in Nebraska now, there are good years and there are lean years – it fluctuates, and the foundation provides a base for consistency and even growth in some areas.”

Although the amount of state aid and money garnered through different tax avenues is outside of a school district’s control, preparing teachers to be successful in their classrooms to ensure the best outcomes for their students isn’t.

Heading into fall 2018, Benson said the NSEA has been spending a great deal of time and energy solely on teacher development. To boost student outcomes, teachers need to constantly be challenged, too, she said.

In conjunction with being challenged, Benson said it’s vital for teachers to have their voices heard. They are the ones in the trenches day in and day out and are oftentimes the best resources for knowing what needs to happen inside of a classroom to maximize learning.

Each year, the NSEA completes surveys allowing teachers to share their thoughts, concerns and advice on how to make classroom operations run more smoothly. When students and teachers are on the same page, it’s never a stretch for great things to happen and for future leaders to be born.

“The learning, the success, the achievement, all of those things are an important investment to our state,” she said. “And I know that sounds cliché, but it really is, because these kids are going to be our future and we need to really reach out and help them be successful.”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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