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School Groups at Odds Over Pair of Neb. Ballot Measures

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In a campaign of conflicting messages and unusual alliances, Nebraska voters might feel they need a score card to keep track of who supports a pair of education-related ballot measures.

At the center of the debate are two initiatives that would amend the state's constitution. The first proposal would make it the "paramount duty" of the state to provide "a thorough and efficient" education; the second would impose a state-wide cap on property taxes, which provide more than half of the funding for schools.

The state's largest teachers' union supports both measures. The state school administrators' organization opposes them. The state school boards' association favors one but not the other.

And other alliances built around the issues make the questions seem more tangled. The teachers' union is working alongside the state farm bureau. The school administrators are going to bat with the state chamber of commerce.

The two questions began as a single proposal posed by an alliance including the Nebraska State Education Association and the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation. ("Neb. Lawmakers Back New Caps on Property Taxes," April 17, 1996.)

The farmers wanted property-tax relief, and the teachers wanted a guarantee the state would replace any lost funds. The only way to secure such a guarantee, they reasoned, was to give Nebraska's constitution one of the most strongly worded constitutional guarantees in the country.

But in August, state election officials split the proposal into separate questions on the ballot, allowing the possibility that a tax cap could pass on Nov. 5 without any guarantees on the fate of school funding.

'Backed Into a Corner'

Whatever the election's results, the administrators' and school boards' organizations worry that saying education is the state's "paramount duty" won't ensure added support for schools.

"Being in the constitution doesn't guarantee we'll have quality education in Nebraska any more than we do now," said Jerry L. Sellentin, the executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. The administrators also worry that replacing lost property taxes with state dollars would mean more state control over the state's patchwork quilt of 656 school districts.

The administrators' opposition puts them in an unusual alignment with the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which worries the two measures would force the largest income- and sales-tax increase in the state's history.

Though opposing the property-tax limit, the Nebraska Association of School Boards has given grudging support to the "paramount duty" clause. Although the group also doubts the amendment will guarantee replacement funds, it fears the tax cap might pass.

"We've been backed into a corner--the school boards are the ones that will have to make all these cuts," said John A. Bonaiuto, the group's executive director.

The property-tax limit--90 cents for schools per $100 of assessed value--would cut about $327 million from the $977 million in property-tax revenues the schools now spend.

Prompted by similar fears, the state school board this month voted to oppose both initiatives.

Like Rogers and Astaire

But the teachers' union is banking on Nebraskans' voting in favor of both amendments, and on the power of the constitutional language to deliver funds.

Unable to keep the proposals to a single ballot issue, supporters of both measures are trying to link the two questions in the minds of voters. Radio spots say the initiatives go together like Ginger Rogers and native Nebraskan Fred Astaire.

But opponents are sending strong messages, too, like the recently aired television ad featuring an apple that rotates until a hand grenade is shown inside.

Outraged at the image, the teachers' union denounced the ad in a news conference, and said that its indignation was compounded because October is National Violence Awareness Month.

Legislators had hoped to head off such bickering last spring by passing a new statewide property-tax cap of $1.10 for schools beginning in fiscal 1999. But that wasn't enough for more than 100,000 voters who signed petitions to get the 90-cent cap on next month's ballot.

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