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Landmark Consolidation Bill Approved in Nebraska

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Lincoln, Neb--Gov. Robert Kerrey has signed into law a historic school-consolidation and state-aid bill that could change the shape of Nebraska public education and affect hundreds of the state's rural schools.

Some 666 of Nebraska's 954 school districts are small, elementary-only rural schools that critics charge are "tax havens" where levies vary from 30 cents per $100 of valuation on one side of the road to $3 on the other side.

Under the consolidation portion of the act, rural elementary-only3schools would be required to merge by 1989 with districts that have high schools. As an option, a district may choose to affiliate rather than merge, retaining its own local board and paying a levy for high-school use.

Nebraska's move toward consolidation comes as rural-school administrators across the state question whether their endemic financial and personnel problems might prevent them from meeting the new education standards approved last year by lawmakers.

But in a growing number of rural school districts, officials are choosing the path of voluntary coopera-tion with neighboring districts in an attempt to improve their programs and also, some say, to avoid consolidation.

Governor's Recommendations

The passage of the consolidation and aid bill--by a margin of only two votes--marked the first time in decades that such a measure had made it beyond legislative committee and to the floor of Nebraska's one-house legislature. Only three hours before the deadline for a veto override, Governor Kerry signed the bill into law with several recommendations lawmakers are expected to endorse.

The Governor suggested that the bill be stripped of its school-finance provisions and said he would call a special session of the legislature this summer to remodel that portion. As written, the bill calls for a 1-cent sales-tax increase to finance increases in state aid to education.

The aid proposal would take Nebraska from near the bottom in the proportion of education funds contributed by the state--now about 27 to 30 percent--to about 45 to 50 percent, the national average.

Controversial Measure

Under the consolidation portion of the act, patrons of the former rural school area must vote to approve the closing of a school building, a provision the attorney general's office has indicated may be unconstitutional.

The measure has irritated some groups and pleased others. The Nebraska School Improvement Association opposes the plan, while the Nebraska State Education Association, which has had consolidation as a goal for 30 years, and the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association both favor it. Merger foes have vowed to fight the new law in court or through referendum petitions.

The move "has been a long time coming," said Commissioner of Education Joseph E. Lutjeharms. The law will improve education and make taxation for schools fairer, he said. He added that he does not expect an immediate rash of school closings.

Cooperation Sought

In recent years, a growing number of Nebraska rural schools have sought to strengthen their services by joining in a statewide voluntary-cooperation movement. But the idea is not entirely a new one for a number of schools, since the state in 1967 instituted regional educational-service units for special education, joint purchasing, staff training, computer networks, and other functions.

For example, four districts have joined in Project Innovative Curriculum, a cooperative effort among schools to write curriculum guides without losing their autonomy. The schools worked with the Mid-Continent Regional Educational Laboratory in Denver, Kansas State Uni-versity, and the Rural School Center at Kearney State College on teacher guides and better teacher-evaluation programs.

Paul Nachtigal, a consultant with the Denver-based lab, sees a national trend toward more "clusters" of rural schools in which the agenda is set by the participants, not by the state.

"The school-merger movement is dead," claims Walt Turner of the American Association of School Administrators, a long-time observer of rural schools. Cooperation, he noted, has taken its place.

In the Giltner public-school district, community members created an advisory committee to "make sure that they keep their school," Principal Doug Bandemer said. "They also want to make sure that their kids get a quality education."

In the Trumbull Consolidated School District, Superintendent of Schools Frank Shaughnessy said that when he talked to the members of his English department about meeting the new education-reform requirements with a small staff, "the two teachers just looked at me." Now, he added, "with four schools together, they have someone to talk to. You can't create ideas in a vacuum. We needed enough people to make it work, and a consultant with a good model."

Gene Panning, superintendent of the Marquette schools, is leading a project with four other schools to talk about sharing counselors, a vocational-agriculture teacher, and other services. "This is not a school-district reorganization procedure," he said.

And there is evidence of support for rural-schools cooperation elsewhere. Representatives of Nebraska businesses, government, and schools, on a visit to Washington, D.C., earlier this year, obtained $250,000 in federal "seed money" to develop a $25-million cooperative system. Under the proposed program, educators would develop materials in science, foreign languages, and other subjects for districts to use across the state.

The University of Nebraska and the Nebraska Department of Education recently initiated programs to take language instruction to small high schools through conference telephone calls to classrooms and other means as another way to make use of scarce teachers and resources.

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