LINCOLN — Urban and rural Nebraska lawmakers huddled Monday evening in hopes of breaking an impasse over changes in the state school aid formula.
The results of their discussion could have major effects on state spending and school budgets.
Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams of York called the meeting after lawmakers had spent around six hours debating aid changes proposed by the Education Committee.
Though Monday night's meeting ended with no immediate resolution, senators will continue their discussions.
Adams said he plans to bring Legislative Bill 407 back for continued first-round debate as soon as a compromise is found.
“We are going to get it done this week,” Adams said.
Debate earlier in the day reflected divisions between senators representing the state's largest school districts and those representing smaller ones.
Large school advocates succeeded in blocking an amendment offered by State Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the Education Committee chairwoman.
But it appeared doubtful they could win approval for their own aid amendments.
Sullivan, who introduced LB 407, began the day by urging colleagues not to get entrenched in their positions and to look beyond their own districts to the good of all Nebraska children.
“I don't want this to be rural versus urban,” Sullivan said. “I don't want this to be about winning and losing.”
Opponents, however, argued that the bill as advanced from committee does not address the problems of districts with high property tax levies and low spending per student.
Most of the state's largest districts fall into that category, including Omaha, Lincoln and most others in the Omaha metro area.
“The issue is ultimately one of fairness,” said Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, who described Grand Island's challenges with growing numbers of students in poverty and with limited English language skills.
Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha pointed out that spending per student is lower in many of the state's largest school districts than in smaller ones.
But Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis said schools in rural areas have higher costs because they have fewer students. The cost per student has risen as populations declined.
Steep increases in the taxable value of agricultural land have shifted state school aid away from many smaller school districts and put more pressure on farmers and ranchers, said Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings.
He warned that high prices for farmland are unlikely to last.
School aid is supposed to fill the gap between what schools need to educate children and what they can get through property taxes and other sources.
The aid formula was intended to equalize resources available to educate students and to relieve property taxes.
LB 407 would alter the formula used to divvy up aid among the 249 public school districts.
It also would rein in the growth of school aid to help lawmakers balance the state budget. At nearly $1 billion annually, school aid is the largest single item in the budget.
Current law would require a 10.4 percent increase in school aid for the coming school year. LB 407, as advanced from committee, would keep the increase to 6.3 percent in that year.
The defeated Sullivan amendment would have allowed 7.4 percent growth next year balanced by 2.5 percent growth in the following year.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said the state budget proposal allows for the amount of aid envisioned by Sullivan's amendment — $915 million for the 2013-14 school year and $940 million for 2014-15.
He urged senators to keep their proposals within that total.
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