OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - State lawmakers rejected an attempt Tuesday to steer more money into Nebraska’s small, rural K-12 schools, many of which receive little aid from the state because they have few students and are surrounded by valuable farmland.
Supporters of the bill argued, however, that it isn’t fair for farmers to shoulder most of the cost of their local schools while districts in Omaha, Lincoln and other cities get hundreds of millions of dollars in state assistance. Lawmakers voted 23-12 in favor of the bill, two votes shy of the simple majority needed to advance it.
The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Curt Friesen, of Henderson, ripped into the larger schools in a floor speech, saying that some in Omaha are failing while wealthier districts in Omaha and Lincoln offer new sports fields, flight simulators and other perks that rural schools can’t afford. The larger districts opposed the bill because it would have reduced their share of money in Nebraska’s school-funding formula.
“Our schools at least remained open, and that’s why people are fleeing some of the cities,” Friesen said, taking a shot at Omaha and Lincoln schools that halted in-person classes during the pandemic. “So let’s just keep shoveling money at some of the schools that are failing, performance-wise.”
Friesen, a farmer, said many of the “hard-working farm kids” from rural schools end up moving to Omaha and Lincoln, where they help fill jobs, and he pointed to high poverty levels in many smaller districts. But he acknowledged before the vote that his bill would fail, because rural senators are outnumbered by lawmakers from larger cities.
Nebraska’s school-funding formula distributes state aid based on the legal definition of what schools need, minus what they can general locally through property taxes. The formula counts factors such as the number of students in a district, the percentage that live in poverty, and what a district can generate locally through property taxes. In recent years it has favored big city schools and left 159 of Nebraska’s 243 districts with no state equalization aid.
Some urban lawmakers said they understood Friesen’s frustration, but raised concerns that the bill wasn’t financially sustainable. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, of Omaha, noted that the bill would cost an estimated $88 million over the next two budget years, an amount that would grow over time.
Sen. Robert Hilkemann, of Omaha, said he opposed the measure because it would give schools in his district “the short end of the stick” in Nebraska’s school funding formula.
Some conservatives said they weren’t convinced that the extra money would help lower property taxes, a major complaint from property and home owners.
“I don’t want to just throw more money at the problem,” said Sen. Ben Hansen, of Blair.
And Sen. John Stinner, of Gering, said lawmakers have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in extra state aid to help lower property taxes throughout the state and ease the burden on property owners. Stinner said he was tired of hearing that lawmakers aren’t doing enough to address the problem.
“If I hear that again, the top of my head’s going to explode,” he said.
In a statement, Nebraska Farm Bureau President Mark McHargue said his group was disappointed with the vote and blasted the “clear inequity” in how rural schools are treated.
“This issue isn’t going away,” he said.
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