Superintendent Cheryl Logan at an OPS school board meeting

"We now know that we have the money and we can also plan well to make sure that we are ready to meet our pension liability, which we all know is variable," said OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan.

The Omaha Public Schools saved more money than anticipated, resulting in $41 million more in the district’s rainy-day fund than board policy dictates.

Even Superintendent Cheryl Logan expressed surprise at the amount of money the district was able to save. She told the school board at a recent meeting that the amount was the result of “cost containment and careful stewardship of the resources from the taxpayers of Omaha.”

At the meeting, board members were going over annual audit reports for the district.

A board policy says the district should keep between 10% and 20% of the prior year’s general operating fund expenses in the rainy-day fund. But for fiscal year 2019, it will be about $156 million. That’s 27.26% of the prior year’s general-fund expenses.

The total budget for the general fund was $617 million, but the district actually spent $570 million.

School board member Lou Ann Goding asked why the board wasn’t informed about the additional funds. She said that money could have been used to help current OPS students, lower the district’s property tax levy or pay into the pension fund.

Goding said the board was told in September that the rainy day fund percentage would be at 18% to 18.5%.

“I don’t know how we got so far off,” Goding said.

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Board member Ben Perlman asked how the unassigned fund changed.

In recent years, the district has had to close budget gaps and make cuts that included eliminating staff.

In April, Logan sent an email to all OPS staff members informing them that the district’s budget problems would necessitate a reduction in force of about 15 to 20 positions at the central office.

Logan said district staff reviewed budgets and contracts line by line. If the spending was not producing results, she said, then OPS didn’t spend that money.

“I had no idea that we could have been this disciplined in one year to meet the goal and to exceed the goal,” Logan said.

Logan said the money remains in the general fund and will be spent as appropriate for things that will make a difference for students. She said the district has identified areas of need that include curriculum resources, supplies for custodians and classroom supplies for teachers.

“We now know that we have the money and we can also plan well to make sure that we are ready to meet our pension liability, which we all know is variable,” Logan said.

Goding said she didn’t vote for the 2019-2020 budget because she wanted to see additional funding put in specific places, including toward the current pension liability. The district’s troubled pension fund has an $800 million-plus shortfall.

She said the district also would have had the money to do an investigation to determine whether the district could recover legal damages over mismanagement of its pension fund.

The district slightly increased its tax levy this year, but CFO Scott Roberts said the increase was related to the district’s bond issue, not the general fund.

Board member Tracy Casady didn’t address the rainy-day fund but said board members had small-group sessions to go over the findings of the audit.

“You’re probably only going to hear snippets of what we delve into,” she said.

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Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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