The Chadron School Board voted unanimously Monday to be named as part of a lawsuit, if one is filed, to address school funding and property taxes. The decision was met with applause from several property owners in the room.
“We prefer the Legislature make a decision and do something,” said Superintendent Dr. Caroline Winchester.
“The reason that the lawsuit has to be hanging out there is to make them do it this year,” added board member Jim O’Rourke.
Several bills in the Legislature over the last few years have aimed to reduce property taxes, but none have gained traction. The school district formed a Legislative Committee, a cooperative effort with local property owners, in 2012, whose members have testified at the Unicameral numerous times.
Board members and Winchester testified as recently as last week on LB1084, which O’Roarke called the most positive bill he’s seen in addressing both property taxes and school funding. The lawsuit, if it happens, will not cost the district anything but will basically allow the district’s data to be used to make the case, Winchester said.
Terri Haynes, a former board member who still participates on the district’s Legislative Committee, spoke on behalf of the committee, urging the board to sign on to for the potential lawsuit.
“Unfortunately, a lawsuit may be the only way for us to get results,” Haynes said. “Chadron has become a credible force in Lincoln…We’re not looking for a solution just for us. We’re looking for it for the whole state of Nebraska,” she said.
In a letter to the editor published in last week’s Chadron Record, Winchester pointed out that the state’s Constitution requires the state, not local subdivisions, to provide education for anyone ages 5-21. The state has shifted much of the public education burden to property taxes through its school funding formula.
Nearly half of Nebraska’s K-12 education is funded by local property taxes, while only 33 percent comes from state resources. One hundred seventy-five school districts in the state receive no state aid, forcing them to rely almost entirely on property taxes to educate their children.
While the Chadron district hopes to see LB1084 advance and be passed by the Legislature, there is also a petition process in place that could place the issue before the voters on the November ballot. The potential for a lawsuit is the third arm to motivate lawmakers, Winchester said.
“The state is not living up to its obligation to provide a free public education,” she said Monday.