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Superintendent keeps close eye on school funding bills

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HARTINGTON - A.J. Johnson is keeping a close eye on legislative bills working their way through the Nebraska Legislature and their potential impact on Hartington-Newcastle Public Schools.

As superintendent, he’s been working closely with those testifying and supplying information to Sen. Barry DeKay who represents Cedar County’s legislative district.

Several bills relate to school funding and have been identified as Gov. Jim Pillen’s priority bills for this session.

Under legislative bills 583 and 681, the state would allocate $1,500 annually for every K-12 public school student.

Johnson said he’s not sure where the dollar amount came from and the state does not currently provide funding per student. He’s worried this plan won’t be sustainable in the long term.

“Currently the state has a surplus of funds but we do know that those surpluses come and go, and when combined with a proposed income tax relief proposal, the amount of money available for this could evaporate,” he said.

These bills also address a gap in special education funding which would benefit both rural and urban schools, Johnson said. He said the extra special education funding at Hartington-Newcastle would be a huge benefit to the district and taxpayers.

“We provide special services to all students in the district regardless of whether or not those students attend school at the public school or whether they go to the parochial schools,” he said. “Thus our special education costs are quite a bit higher than most school districts with our enrollment.”

But Johnson is also left wondering if this proposal will be sustainable.

“This might be one of the first things to get cut if the state suffers a downturn thus putting the costs right back on to the property taxpayers,” he said.

LB 681 goes further in that it attempts to address teacher shortages by providing grants aimed at retaining teachers.

Johnson said while provisions of this bill will help it doesn’t get to the heart of the factors behind teacher shortages experienced in the district and state. “Teaching is a hard job and teachers are overwhelmed at times by the work and by meeting the needs of students,” he said. “We could use more support there.”

Specifically, Johnson said an increase in teaching salaries would help attract teachers but the bill does not address that.

He’s also disheartened by a narrative being promoted by some political groups that label teachers as extreme indoctrinators who push their political beliefs on students.

“What we know is that while there may be a few bad apples, teachers as a whole are only here to educate your children, to care about them as people, and to help make them the best adults they can be,” Johnson said. “The teachers in our school come from different backgrounds and have different political beliefs but they keep those out of the classroom, and they do everything they can to help kids learn and grow. . . . These same teachers worry about kids when they go home and they lose sleep because of it. They put their heart and soul into their work. And when a student turns a corner, they feel an amazing sense of accomplishment.” Johnson said he’s worried about the future of education if the teacher shortage continues to worsen and causes aren’t addressed.

LB 681 also provides grant money for furthering career and technical training for students and increasing mentoring opportunities.

Another school funding proposal, LB 589, would put a three percent cap on property tax revenue that a school district receives. However, the cap can be overridden by 75 percent of voting school board members or approval of 60 percent of a district’s registered voters.

While Johnson is happy that the bill includes a provision for the school board to retain some local control on the issue, it does not take into account the current realities with inflation at more than six percent.

“It would be great to keep revenue growth under three percent. It really would,” Johnson said. “But, for just one example, when the cost of a new bus goes up by 26 percent over the last two years, what are we supposed to do? The cost of everything is growing by faster than three percent.”

While some say schools should “tighten the belt” on expenses, most costs are fixed.

“The only way to truly cut costs significantly would mean cutting programs or staff. It would mean having far too many students in one classroom, or dropping a program that our board of education has deemed vital to our students,” he said.

The local school board is committed to keeping costs in line and looks at all options before raising taxes, Johnson said.