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Finance Case Pits Farming Brothers Against Nebraska

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VALPARAISO, NEB.--Over lunch at a farmhouse table here, the talk moves from the concerns of the frigid morning--tending calves and cows and a stalled pickup truck--to broader horizons.

Two brothers, Jack and Don Gould, begin a familiar conversation that they hope will soon resound beyond their 1,660-acre farm to reshape Nebraska's education system.

They talk about courts, lawmakers, and school administrators, and about how students in this community of 481 are unable to compete with those from Omaha and Lincoln. Many young people never reach their potential, they say, because the bare-bones schools here hold them back.

"It just makes no sense,'' sighs Jack Gould.

Over the past three years the brothers have spent $10,265 of their own money and raised $18,477 more to press a school-finance lawsuit that once enjoyed broad support among educators and lawmakers in the state. Their crusade is now a lonely one, but they have not given up, and later this spring the Nebraska Supreme Court will decide whether the case should go to trial.

At a time when legal challenges to the fairness of state school-funding systems are meeting with increasing success across the country, the issue here seems like a flashback to the beginnings of the finance-equity movement, as a pair of country farmers take on the state with little outside help or understanding.

To an outsider used to discussions of administrative efficiency and equalized spending, the Goulds' target looks like an inviting one. With just over 320,000 students, Nebraska is carved into 936 school districts and boasts 617 school superintendents. Neighboring Kansas, with nearly 450,000 students, has about 300 districts, while Nevada, with 223,000 pupils, has only 17.

The large number of districts not only inflates administrative costs, observers say, but exaggerates disparities in local wealth and programs. From rural one-room schools to sprawling urban systems, districts are supported largely with local funds that put varying burdens on local landowners and produce wide differences in spending--from $3,526 to $12,744 per pupil, according to the state education department.

"Here, we have a vocal-music teacher who supervises the university videotapes that are used to teach Spanish,'' Jack Gould says. "Compare that to five years of many languages, or courses in Chinese, in Lincoln and it's easy to see that we're going to have people who are linguists and people who have just fulfilled a requirement and can't compete with the others.''

"Meanwhile, farmers are being crucified with taxes,'' Don Gould adds.

Worse Than the Disease?

In response to such concerns, Superintendent Jim Ossian of the nearby Waverly school district cites a Latin aphorism: "Some remedies are worse than the disease.''

With 1,600 students, Mr. Ossian is superintendent of the 23rd-largest district in the state. Although the district does relatively well under the current finance system, he points to its antiquated facilities as the unintended consequences of earlier attempts to reorganize and consolidate Nebraska schools.

Mr. Ossian readily admits that the state education system is ripe for criticism. But he also testifies to the political and practical obstacles to wholesale change.

"I don't know how you are going to put together something that satisfies the diversity of Omaha and the 25 kids in high school in Arthur County,'' he says. "We couldn't reorganize if we wanted to, unless you used helicopters for school buses.''

Although it is not far from the state capital of Lincoln, Waverly is hardly suburban. It was created during the state's last major wave of school consolidation, in the late 1960's, by combining five small-town systems.

Ever since, the district has been unable to pass a bond measure, reflecting the intense feelings of local ownership that prompt many voters to turn down new facilities not located in their hamlet.

"If any one value remains very strong in Nebraska, it is local autonomy,'' said Bruce Johnson, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska. "It's that sense of independence and control over one's destiny.''

What is left to control in many rural Nebraska towns are the remnants of a small shopping area, a scarcity of good jobs, and perhaps an aging schoolhouse.

"Many places are swimming upstream to maintain their viability,'' Mr. Johnson said.

It is into this thicket that the Goulds want the state to tread, to overhaul school organization and fund the new system at a level that allows everyone to compete.

Mr. Ossian says he understands the brothers' situation and in many ways sympathizes, but cannot support such upheaval.

"There is a lot of folklore attraction to Jack and Don's efforts--it's the old David-and-Goliath thing,'' Mr. Ossian notes. "A lot of people would like to think that they are wild-eyed and crazy, but they're not. They've seen firsthand and face to face the things that some children are getting and others are not.''

Contrasting Schools

Jack Gould, a former high school history teacher and football coach, explains that this is not his first battle with the education system.

As a teacher in Lincoln some years ago, for example, Mr. Gould read newspaper quotes from the superintendent attacking the state education budget and threatening unlikely cuts in popular programs. In response, Mr. Gould wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the superintendent, and said the same thing after being summoned to the superintendent's office for a lecture on politics.

"How am I supposed to explain that to the kids that we're teaching to be honest and tell the truth?'' Mr. Gould recalls asking.

After going to work for the Raymond Central district, where he now lives, Mr. Gould refused to be both coach of the wrestling team and its bus driver. The insubordination earned him a brief suspension, but led to a decision clarifying that Nebraska teachers did not have to drive buses.

A recent trip to Lincoln Southeast High School offered Mr. Gould many reasons to make a forceful stand.

"This is great,'' he says as he stands in the art room, a classroom so spacious that it seemingly could double as an aviary.

Mr. Gould once taught world history in the school. He also taught at Raymond Central High School, where his daughter now attends, and cannot forget the contrasts.

"When I put together a class at Lincoln, I could have Tchaikovsky playing in the background and the battle of Borodino on an overhead projector and the kids could get a feeling of what the thing was really like,'' he recalls.

"It is so hard to accept when you get to the rural school that while you try to be exciting and try to do your best, you are much more limited,'' he says, adding that teachers are given more work, less pay, and fewer resources.

The children, he complains, also get less. "The state requirements are kept low and not defined, so school districts can get away with a lot,'' he argues. "You have to have advanced math, but that could mean Algebra II and geometry, or it could mean calculus and trigonometry and advanced-placement courses.''

Mr. Gould also complains that state leaders and the news media are deaf to his cause, seizing only the underdog angle of the lawsuit.

"They like to watch us ride our tractors and stand by the bales. They write about us, saying here are these two quaint ranchers from Valparaiso trying to fight the system and isn't that nice,'' Mr. Gould says. "They won't talk about the issues.''

'A Long Way To Go'

Three years ago, the Goulds were popular among state leaders gearing up for an effort to reform the school-finance system.

The lawmakers' solution was LB 1059, a controversial plan that shifted a greater part of the education-funding burden from local property taxes to the state. The plan was an effort to ward off a court-ordered revision, and the threat of a lawsuit was used as leverage to pass the bill.

The law was enacted over a veto and survived a recall referendum. Since then, it has provided for a greater share of state funding.

Critics say the law has done little to update the system. But others who recall the bruising political battle doubt much more could be achieved.

"Those who had the most personal toil invested in LB 1059 are still in charge in the legislature and they don't want it messed with,'' Mr. Ossian explains. "They are loath to start all over again. There are a lot of people who would say this is the best law we could have.''

Others suggest, however, that the law did little more than bring Nebraska to the first stage of modern school finance. Previously, the state-aid system provided a flat per-pupil amount to each district, regardless of local wealth or tax effort.

Nebraska lawmakers copied a Kansas finance formula that has since been overhauled, noted David C. Thompson, a school-finance researcher at Kansas State University.

"It is a system we have thrown away,'' he said. "It is a case of being 50 years behind. There isn't enough going into their formula to make anybody do anything but yawn, so they've got a long way to go.''

Others beg for patience and argue that while Nebraska's system may be antiquated, it produces laudable test scores and low dropout rates.

"Certainly there are some issues that need to be addressed, but I would rather be living in Nebraska than a lot of other places,'' said Jerry Sellentin, the executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. "Local control is a very important factor that has to be kept in mind. We also must ask what is equity. As I tell my children, everything in life is not fair.''

Tiny Elementary Districts

After a fresh coat of snow overnight, four children are absent from School District #38, outside Lincoln. Their empty seats are noticeable, as they constitute two-thirds of the district's enrollment. Without them, the remaining two students pull chairs up to the front of the teacher's desk for their lessons.

Karen Settell, a first-year teacher, calls the situation ideal. But she admits that she has yet to find the best way to teach six different reading levels daily.

One-room elementary districts account for 412 of the state's school districts. They are supervised by 93 county superintendents.

Observers also describe the elementary districts as tax havens for agricultural-property owners, who are responsible for the costs of schooling only a handful of children.

Although the legislature has passed a plan encouraging the districts to affiliate with nearby secondary schools, the Goulds and other critics complain that the state is only finding ways to patch an outdated system. Further, they note, most of the tiny districts exist more for tax relief than top-notch education.

"Right now, it's a tax issue--the inequities make it that,'' says Larry M. Lindquist, the administrator of the educational-service unit in Milford, a regional training and support facility. "We don't have kids at center stage in this state.''

Local Control as 'Scapegoat'

The Goulds argue that their lawsuit is the only way to get lawmakers, taxpayers, and educators all focused on a common goal. The ideals of community independence and survival, they contend, have handicapped the state's schools.

"Local control is a great scapegoat and excuse to do nothing,'' Don says.

Many residents are paying dearly for substandard schools, he adds. The annual property-tax bill for the Goulds' farm is about $26,000--nearly a quarter of their gross income from the land. About $18,000 goes to the school district.

"What this really comes down to is the question of whether we are going to look at this at the state level, because we have to say all kids are important,'' Don says. "We're Nebraskans on a Saturday afternoon when we're playing Oklahoma. But as soon as that is over, we revert back to our school district. If that is our focus, we are never going to solve this problem.''

The brothers explain that their goal is not to make trouble for the state, but to force improvements that politicians and education leaders seem unwilling to tackle.

"If we are rebels it's only because that's what other people say we are,'' says Jack. "What we want is fairness, and I don't think that's asking for too much. I don't think anybody wants to see kids cheated.''

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