Largest Neb. Districts Join Forces To Push Agenda
The largest school districts in Nebraska are bypassing the state school boards' association and using a new coalition to carry their needs to lawmakers.
The Greater Nebraska Schools Association, formed this winter, comprises 24 of the state's largest districts, including Omaha, Lincoln, Alliance, Scotts Bluff, Beatrice, Kearney, and Norfolk. The group represents about 55 percent of Nebraska's nearly 280,000 public school students.
The new association does not intend to supplant the Nebraska Association of School Boards, said Bill Gannon, the schools superintendent in Alliance and a GNSA member. In fact, his district remains an active member of the established group.
The new group will work on the same kinds of issues as the NASB, but with a much narrower aim. The districts came together, Mr. Gannon said, because the school boards' association has been unable to represent the needs of both the small rural districts that dominate the Cornhusker State and the few larger districts.
He said one of the main problems larger districts have with the NASB is its nonproportional voting system, which allows each district one vote, while assessing dues on the basis of enrollment. Smaller districts that pay far less in dues, therefore, are on equal footing with larger districts when it comes to voting on policy positions.
"We were just having a difficult time getting the larger school districts' voices heard," Mr. Gannon said. "The NASB couldn't take a stand for the needs of either larger or smaller districts, and we needed a collective voice."
Another member of the new group, Superintendent Gary Hammack of the Kearney schools, said that Nebraska's bigger districts are burdened with some of the highest property-tax rates in the state but have some of the lowest average expenditures per pupil.
The new alliance comes at a critical time in Nebraska politics, he said, because of changes under way in the school funding formula. These include a property-tax limit that takes effect next year and a two-year spending cap.
State equalization aid is intended to channel state aid to lower-wealth districts, making up for school costs that are not covered by local revenue.
But Mr. Hammack said the coming finance changes could mean the loss of millions of dollars in local revenue for some GNSA districts.
"Our number-one goal is to get additional funds from through state equalization aid," he said. "Though all schools welcome state aid, not all support equalization."
For their part, NASB leaders concede their organization's shortcomings in representing the interests of all districts.
Discontent "goes with the territory of any large organization that tries to represent such a large cross section," said Brian Hale, a spokesman for the larger group. "We hear similar complaints from small school districts. The association business is a compromise game."
Although the NASB has been trying to step out of its one-size-fits-all boundaries by breaking the organization into what Mr. Hale described as "customer-service networks," he said he was not surprised at the new group's launch--"especially given the financial pinch of the state legislature."
"Nebraska is on the verge of creating a new school funding formula, and people feel they need their issues spoken loudly and clearly," Mr. Hale said.
Similar specialized school groups have formed in the past, he said. For years, the Nebraska Rural Schools Association has lobbied for the distinctive needs of sparsely populated, rural schools.
For now, at least, there are no hard feelings between the two groups. School boards' association officials have attended several of the GNSA's meetings.
"We're trying to find ways support them," Mr. Hale said.