As the state continues to grapple with our overreliance on property taxes, I want to let you in on a secret: Nebraska’s 1,700 locally elected school board members want property tax relief too! Schools need the state’s partnership, not mandates.
From town halls, to Twitter, to some within our Capitol, we keep hearing a false narrative about property taxes. This false narrative says the only way you can have property tax relief is to cut spending. This failed narrative has not resulted in any meaningful property tax relief for anyone. However, the state continues to pursue a big-government approach that dictates the state should reach down to locally elected officials to control spending.
This message coming from the state implies our overreliance on property taxes is the fault of schools and other political sub-divisions spending. However, if you look at budget growth since 2010-11 you will see the state budget grew at an average of 2.97%, while the total cost per student in Nebraska grew at 2.51%. Schools have collectively “tightened their belts” more than the state of Nebraska.
Nebraska prides itself on being a “local control” state. This belt tightening is evidence of the difficult decisions school board members have made over the past several years. These challenging decisions have also prioritized spending in the classroom.
Last year, Nebraska schools ranked second highest in the nation in the percentage of school funding being invested in the classroom according to the census bureau. Meanwhile, Nebraska ranked 49th worst in the nation in the percentage of state funding going to K-12 education. New Hampshire, a state that does not have an income tax, ranked 50th.
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Also, according to the Texas Legislative Council, Nebraska is one of only four states that has absolutely no state support for school facilities. This means the total cost for facilities fall entirely on the local property tax payer.
Nebraska’s state budget has long been balanced on the backs of local property tax payers, with cities, counties and schools forced to make up the difference between growing mandates and state funding.
The state has failed on its obligations, leaving local boards to make up the difference. Local school boards aren’t to blame for the state’s cost shift but are willing to be partners to fix it.
So, instead of blaming schools and treating us like an adversary, let’s work together to develop sustainable, long-term options to reduce our reliance on property taxes. Simply giving up and saying the only way to do it is by cutting spending is not good enough for our property tax payers.
- John Spatz is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards (NASB), a private, nonprofit organization that serves the needs of Nebraska’s public schools, to strengthen public education for all Nebraskans.