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Nebraska Tax Revolt Targets School Boards

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Taxpayer groups in three Nebraska communities have moved to oust their local school boards to protest property-tax hikes that the boards claim were forced in part by reductions in state education aid.

"People are fed up with taxes, and this is one way to lash out," said Kenneth L. Meyer, vice president of the Scottsbluff school board. ''They get together and say, 'We're gonna get that board, by golly."'

Members of the Scottsbluff board stand to lose their positions next month as a result of a petition drive that garnered enough signatures to force a recall election in the 3,000-student district in western Nebraska.

One member of the O'Neill school board was recalled in a special election last month by fewer than 20 votes, while three other members received enough votes to hold on to their posts.

And although a recall effort in Grand Island, the state's third-larg4est city, fell about 3,000 signatures short of the minimum number needed to force an election, protest organizers say they will try to take incumbents' seats in elections next year.

'Nothing Boards Can Do'

Property taxes account for about 65 percent of all public-school revenues in Nebraska, placing the state second only to New Hampshire in that category, according to Dale E. Siefkes, associate executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards.

"Local property taxes are reaching excessive levels, we agree," Mr. Siefkes said. "But Nebraska tax policy has created an over-reliance on property taxes, and we've reduced state aid--there's nothing school boards can do."

State aid to precollegiate education has fallen about $13 million in five years, from a high of $136 million in fiscal 1982 to $123 million in fiscal 1988. In a special legislative session last December, lawmakers cut $3.9 million in state education funds as part of a $6.5-million budget-reduction effort.

Loren D. Brakenhoff, administrator of school finance for the state education department, said the department "continually asks for restoration of state aid" and the enactment of a sales tax or other measures to reduce schools' reliance on property taxes.

"There's nothing we can do; it's in the hands of the legislature," Mr. Brakenhoff said.

Gov. Kay A. Orr says it is too early to tell whether aid to schools can be increased next year, a spokesman for the Governor said last week. But given the depressed condition of Nebraska's agricultural economy, the prospects for fundamental changes in tax and spending policies are2p4bleak, raising the specter of even more recall drives, administrators and other observers say.

Budget 'Fat' Protested

In Grand Island, with a school enrollment of 7,500, state budget austerity has translated into a $500,000 loss in aid over the past three years, said James D. Livingston, president of the school board.

"People complain that taxes are too high, but there's a myth that local school boards can control their budgets," Mr. Livingston said. "The concern should lie with the state legislature."

The Grand Island board adopted a $25-million budget for the current school year, up $2.5 million from the year before. But a substantial portion of that increase was forced by an arbitrator's ruling in a contract dispute with teachers that raised salaries by 5 percent, from a base pay of about $13,000 to $13,700.

In the face of state-aid reductions, Mr. Livingston said the board first decided to raise property taxes by 9 percent to collect the needed revenues. It later cut its budget by $500,000 and lowered the property-tax hike to 8 percent in the wake of citizen complaints.

That move, however, was not enough to forestall a campaign to recall the board.

John R. Tetreault, leader of the unsuccessful recall effort in Grand Island, said the district budget contains "a lot of fat." He said his group found $2.5 million that could have been cut, including a 40 percent reduction in administrators' salaries.

"I see a trend toward excessively high administrator salaries and benefits that aren't increasing the quality of education," he said. The board, he asserted, has "never cut funds" in times of austerity.

"They always turn around and raise taxes," he said, adding that he and several other recall organizers intend to run for the school board in the next election in May.

In the O'Neill school district, an 800-student system in northeastern Nebraska, the board approved a $2.6-million budget for the current school year, $100,000 less than the amount approved for 1986-87.

It also voted, however, to raise property taxes by a hefty 43 percent in order to replenish cash reserves that were depleted during the past two years, said Gordon W. Mitchell, the board's president. The board, he explained, decided to use the reserve funds rather than raise taxes in those years.

Recall organizers targeted the four board members who approved the tax increase, but only one was recalled.

"We've re-examined our education system and cut where we could, but this has proved that we don't have a lot of control locally," Mr. Mitchell said.

The Scottsbluff school board voted this year to increase spending from $9.75 million to $10 million and to raise property taxes by 6 percent.

Taxpayer protests forced the board to cut $300,000 from its budget--which was to have been used to fix a junior high school to meet fire- code standards--but the move, as4elsewhere, did not prevent an effort to recall all six board members.

Damaged Relations

A committee to campaign against the recall is preparing for the Nov. 3 election in Scottsbluff. Mr. Meyer, who is also the fire marshall for the town of 15,000, said he will try to contact "as many people as I can" to explain the district's financial situation.

"I'm going to say to them, 'These are the facts; I wish you would have come to me first,"' he said. "I really doubt whether most of those people know how the system works."

Regardless of the recall election's outcome, the controversy has damaged relations in the community, Mr. Meyer said. "Members of the same families don't talk to each other anymore," he said. "It's kind of scary."

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