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Proposed property tax plan could require cuts at Nebraska's largest school districts

LINCOLN — With the start of the 2020 state legislative session on Wednesday, a committee appears to have reached agreement on a proposal to gradually reduce local property taxes.

The plan, drafted mainly by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, would increase state aid to K-12 education by about $530 million over three years, while seeking to reduce property taxes a like amount by lowering the valuation of property for school tax purposes.

The property tax relief would be delivered mainly through new “foundation aid,” which would send school districts $695 in state aid per student in the first year and increase that to $2,265 by the third year.

“What we’ve heard over and over is that property taxes are too high because state aid is too low. We’re trying to change that,” said Linehan, who chairs the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. The goal, in the end and on average, is to reduce the school portion of property tax bills by 15%.

Under the proposal, expected to be introduced Wednesday, the first day of the 2020 session of the Legislature, some of the state’s smallest school districts would see state aid increases of tenfold to twentyfold, while the largest districts — which get the bulk of state aid now — would see more modest increases. Rough projections released Monday by the Legislative Fiscal Office would give the Omaha Public Schools increases in state aid of 2.8% and 2.7% in the first two years of the plan, with Millard getting hikes of 5.1% and 7.4%.

Those same projections, however, show OPS seeing a decline in total funding “resources” (state aid plus property taxes) of 2.5%, or $13 million, after two years of the plan, and Millard with a decline of 2.6%, or $5 million.

But Linehan and North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, who also helped craft the plan, disputed the accuracy of those projections and whether the proposal might force some of the state’s largest school districts to reduce spending. The projections, Linehan said, don’t take into account that property in the urban school districts will rise in value, generating more property tax revenue.

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“I don’t see how they’d have to cut spending at all,” she said.

At least one senator on the committee, John McCollister of Omaha, said he wants to see more details and get more input from the schools in his legislative district before signing onto the plan.

“I’m reserving judgment,” he said. “But it’s the only train on the tracks (for property tax relief).”

Two rural senators on the committee, Curt Friesen of Henderson and Tom Briese of Albion, said they wanted so-called “basic funding” for school districts added to the proposal. Basing increased state aid on a per-student basis doesn’t help rural school districts much because they don’t have many students, the two senators argue. Doling it out as basic funding — a certain amount for each district — would be better.

Linehan promised to consider their amendment, which might cost upward of $4 million a year.

The committee, which handles tax policy, held two closed-doors meetings Monday as it worked out details of the bill. In between, committee members lunched with Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has made additional property tax relief his No. 1 priority for the 2020 session. He has also provided input to Linehan over the summer and fall.

After meeting with the governor, Linehan asked if committee members supported each element of the plan. Linehan said she believes that the plan has the support of at least five of the committee’s eight members.

“Maybe six, maybe seven or eight,” she added.

Unlike the committee’s property tax relief plan that failed to advance in 2019, the new plan doesn’t seek to remove tax exemptions on things like junk food and pop, or impose new taxes on haircuts and auto repairs. Instead, it relies on state tax revenue that is expected to exceed forecasts by at least $100 million a year over the next three years.

Under the new plan, residential and commercial property would eventually be taxed on 85% of its actual value for school funding only, down from the current 100%. Farmland valuations would drop from the current 75% to 55%.

Linehan said that eliminating a tax increase or shift will make the new plan much more likely to pass. The new bill also does not impose new spending limits on school districts until the fourth year of the plan and grants Omaha schools an extra 6-cent tax levy to address the $800 million shortfall in its teacher pension fund.

A Ricketts spokesman, on Monday afternoon, said the governor stopped short of endorsing the newest plan, saying “discussions are ongoing.”

“It was a productive meeting,” spokesman Taylor Gage said of the luncheon huddle with state senators on Monday.

Reducing local property taxes has been a top priority for state lawmakers and governors for years, but making major changes has proved politically difficult. Most proposals have called for shifting or increasing taxes or shifting state aid, which tends to inspire opposition by school districts, anti-tax groups and businesses facing tax increases.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Meet the Nebraska state senators

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'We're being inundated': Drone sightings spread eastward in Nebraska

LINCOLN — The mystery of the unidentified flying drones deepened Monday as new sightings moved eastward into central Nebraska and puzzled law enforcement officials gathered in northeast Colorado.

Even callers to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ monthly radio show were seeking answers.

“We’re being inundated with these drones. They’re starting to be a real annoyance,” said one caller, Byron from Palisade, a southwest Nebraska community west of McCook.

The governor had no information to give but expressed confidence that officials would get to the bottom of the mystery. He also warned callers against trying to shoot down the drones.

Since mid-December, groups of large drones, some flying in grid-like formations, have been spotted buzzing over rural parts of northeastern Colorado and western Nebraska at night. On Sunday night, there were sightings in the central Nebraska counties of Hall, Buffalo and Adams, as well as south of Madrid, in Perkins County, about 27 miles from the Colorado border.

Chief Deputy Perkins County Sheriff Jeffrey Miller said that a Monday meeting of several dozen law enforcement officials in Brush, Colorado, provided few clues as to who is behind the drone flights.

“At this point in time, there’s still no clear idea who is operating these,” he said after the meeting. “I can tell you that the powers that be and the agencies involved are working diligently and using all resources to narrow things down.”

The northeast Colorado meeting, he said, included representatives of the Nebraska State Patrol as well as sheriff’s offices in Deuel, Lincoln and Chase Counties, along with several Colorado law enforcement agencies and the Federal Aviation Administration.

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“Multiple FAA divisions are working closely with federal, state and local stakeholders to try to determine whether the reported sightings in Colorado and Nebraska are drones and, if so, who is operating them and for what reason,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

The meeting in Brush, Gregor said, was held to share information and to discuss how to most effectively work together to discover what’s behind the drone flights, which do not appear malicious.

Speculation has ranged from companies prospecting for oil and gas to drone pilots practicing for air shows. The FAA has ruled out the military or other government agencies and has not found any licensed, private companies flying drones.

After Monday’s meeting, the Phillips County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook that a drone task force had been organized and that the public should be on the lookout for a “command vehicle.”

“We are looking for a closed box trailer with antennas or a large van that does not belong in the area,” the post said.

Sunday night’s sightings near Grand Island, Kearney and Hastings are the farthest east that drones have been seen. The sightings began in northeast Colorado and have spread eastward.

Hastings Police Capt. Mike Doremus said a pilot reported seeing a number of drones flying in a grid formation about 2 miles west of Hastings about 9 p.m. Sunday.

Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller said three reports of drones flying in his county were fielded between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday.

Miller, the Perkins County deputy, said the public should report any sightings to law enforcement, so they can be vetted, before rushing to post them on Facebook.

One caller to Ricketts’ radio show Monday, Gene from Lexington, suggested that “the fastest way to get anybody’s attention is to drop three to four of those rascals.”

 But Ricketts and other officials said shooting down a drone would not only be against the law, but also might cause property damage or endanger the public.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

A previous version of this story included an incorrect first name for Byron of Palisade, a caller to Gov. Pete Ricketts' monthly radio show.

Photos: The Omaha World-Herald's best images of 2019

People at OPS board meeting show support for teen abused by teacher, criticize handling of case

Wearing blue shirts and carrying signs, more than a dozen people attended the Omaha school board meeting Monday to show support for a former Davis Middle School student sexually assaulted by her teacher.

Blue, they said, is the favorite color of Anna, who was groomed and then assaulted by then-math teacher Brian Robeson.

Pinned on their shirts were teal ribbons representing sexual assault awareness.

Anna is not the young woman’s real name; The World-Herald doesn’t name victims of sexual abuse unless they want to be.

Ronda Rankin, one of the supporters, told the board that the Davis principal should be removed.

Rankin paraphrased a World-Herald article, recounting details of the abuse suffered by Anna.

Anna, now 18, recently told The World-Herald about how, starting when she was 12, Robeson assaulted her outside of school, in his classroom during lunch, in a computer lab and in a restroom. Robeson was caught by accident by a neighbor who surprised him in the girl’s home. He is in prison.

Emails, hugs, promises: Teen victim describes how OPS teacher groomed her for sexual abuse

Staff members reported concerns about the teacher's behavior with girls, but school officials never separated him and the student, or launched a formal investigation into his behavior. Despite that, a federal judge sided with OPS on a lawsuit alleging the school district violated the girl's constitutional rights to be free from sexual harassment under Title IX.

Rankin said that despite staff concerns about Robeson’s behavior, the principal and human resources officials responded to him with “slaps on the wrist at best.”

The principal failed to lead, she said.

“I’d like to recommend to the board for the removal of this principal in his position at Davis Middle School because of his inability to protect children,” she said.

She asked board members what the Omaha Public Schools have done to support Anna and her family and help them in the healing process.

“Have they reached out to the family to apologize? Will OPS offer to provide the financing of much-needed medical expenses?”

The board members did not respond to the comments, which were made during the public comment period.

The Rev. David Korth, a pastor who has been working with Anna and her parents, told the board that he didn’t hold the members responsible for the abuse.

But he said Anna and her family were “revictimized” last year in the legal process.

He said that during Anna’s deposition, OPS lawyers tried to make it seem like she should have known better.

“Shame on OPS for allowing that to happen,” Korth said. “Try to imagine if the Catholic Church, in all of the negative press that we have had on sexual abuse, had lawyers representing them revictimize victims. The public outcry that we would be hearing — it would be deafening.”

He urged the board to help the family.

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Anna said in an interview that she’s been surprised by the reaction to the story.

When the news of Robeson’s arrest broke in 2015, people blamed her and her parents online and called her names.

On Monday night, people were speaking on her behalf at the meeting.

The grooming began in the 2013-14 school year, when Anna was in seventh grade.

During her two years at the school, numerous staff members reported concerns to the principal about Robeson’s behavior with girls, including Anna. One teacher reported Robeson to the state child abuse hotline.

Anna and Robeson were never separated, and school officials never launched a formal investigation to find out what was going on with them.

Anna’s parents said they were never contacted by school officials and were astonished when they found out about the concerns repeatedly raised by staff. In July 2017, Anna’s parents sued the school district, Principal Dan Bartels, Robeson and unnamed administrators.

OPS ignored red flags about ex-teacher who sexually assaulted student, lawsuit says

On Nov. 1, a federal judge sided with OPS officials, ruling that they should not be second-guessed and that they didn’t ignore the signs. Anna and her parents intend to appeal the ruling.

The district declined the newspaper’s request to interview OPS officials, including Bartels, and instead released a statement. The district said its staff acted responsively and professionally at all times.

Anna is now a college student, studying to become a teacher.

The World-Herald has been examining educator sexual misconduct in Nebraska in an occasional series on the topic.

On Sunday, it published the findings of its investigation into the scope of the problem.

Since the beginning of 2014, at least 56 certified educators were caught in inappropriate sexual contact or communication with students.

Their misconduct ranged from sexual intercourse with a student to dinner and a movie with a student.

There were at least 74 victims of those perpetrators. Some of the victims were abused prior to 2014.

The real number of victims could be higher; many are reluctant to come forward.

A national expert said that only about one in 10 abused students reports it.

Notable crime news of 2019

On day of confusion, Esper says U.S. hasn't decided to leave Iraq

BEIRUT — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that the United States has not made any decision to leave Iraq, shortly after the U.S. military said in a letter to Iraqi officials that U.S. forces would be relocating "to prepare for onward movement."

On Sunday, Iraqi lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution calling for foreign troops to withdraw under pressure from proIran factions angry at the U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general Friday at an Iraqi airport.

In the letter, released Monday, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William Seely said that U.S. forces "respect your sovereign decision to order our departure." A U.S. military official confirmed the letter's authenticity.

But in a day of confusion, Esper said he could not confirm the authenticity of the letter because he had seen it only after it had been leaked. He said the letter "is inconsistent with where we are right now."

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the letter "was a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released."

Part of the letter was "poorly worded, implies withdrawal," Milley said. "That is not what's happening."

A pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq could cripple the fight against Islamic State militants and allow the extremists to more easily make a comeback. Iraqi forces have relied on the U.S. for logistics and weapons in pursuing them.

An American withdrawal could also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority Shiite country.

Over the weekend the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq suspended its fight against the Islamic State in order to concentrate on protecting U.S. forces. It was unclear how long the moratorium would last.

Speaking at the Pentagon, Esper was also asked whether the U.S. military was prepared to strike Iranian cultural sites, as President Donald Trump has suggested. Esper replied that the military would "follow the laws of armed conflict." Asked whether that means no, because international law prohibits targeting such sites during war, Esper said: "That's the laws of armed conflict."

Esper said that the United States remains prepared for any contingency with regard to Iran and that the message to Tehran is that the "ball remains in their court."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department has ordered an amphibious force of about 4,500 sailors and Marines to prepare to support Middle East operations, a defense official said Monday, adding potential firepower to deal with the prospect of Iranian retaliation amid an outpouring of grief in Tehran for the slain commander.

Huge throngs of Iranians mourned Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led the elite Quds Force, at his funeral Monday in Tehran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, wept as he prayed over the general's coffin, while he and other Iranian leaders vowed revenge.

Demonstrators burned Israeli and U.S. flags, carried a flag draped U.S. coffin or displayed effigies of Trump, who ordered the drone strike. Some described Trump as a legitimate target. "Have you EVER seen such a sea of humanity in your life, @realdonaldtrump?" Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter. "And do you still imagine you can break the will of this great nation & its people?"

Soleimani's daughter, Zeinab, directly threatened the U.S. military in the Middle East. "The families of the American soldiers ... will spend their days waiting for the death of their children," she said to cheers.

Soleimani's successor as leader of the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, stood near Khamenei. Ghaani has been under U.S. sanctions since 2012 for his work funding the Quds' global operations, including its work with proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Those proxies likely will be involved in any operation targeting U.S. interests.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday called for restraint from all parties.

At the United Nations, Russia and China say they strongly opposed the New Year's Eve attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by Iran-backed militias. But Moscow and Beijing say they have decided to block a U.N. Security Council statement condemning that attack because it doesn't address the subsequent U.S. killing of Soleimani.

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said Monday that the focus must now be to "prevent developments going down the drain in the direction of a major conflict."

This report includes material from the Washington Post and Associated Press.