Members of a new advocacy group believe it's time for parents to make their voices heard on K-12 education funding in Nebraska.

Nebraska Parents for Public Education started last summer with a small group of parents from Omaha. They quickly settled on an area of common concern: school funding. In September, a half-dozen members testified at a legislative hearing on the topic in Gretna. The group also has connected via Skype with groups in Mississippi and Chadron, Neb.

Now the all-volunteer group, which counts 161 email-list followers in about a dozen school districts statewide, is gearing up for the Legislature's debate over the state's two-year budget. Members plan to call on lawmakers to “fully fund” education and to restore what they say are cuts made over the past two years.

On Saturday, the group will hold a letter-writing campaign from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Lighthouse Pizza, 1004 S. 74th Plaza in Omaha. Postcards will be available for parents to jot down how budget cuts have affected their children's schools and classrooms.

Shawn Bonge, a member of the group, said the Saturday event allows busy parents to weigh in without investing a lot of time. “We're just saying, 'Tell us your story.'”

Members say they think stories about larger class sizes, fewer teachers and teacher assistants, and a lack of technology upgrades will add up.

“Parents are fierce advocates for their children,” said Sue Behr, another group member and a Westside Community Schools parent. “I firmly believe if we can get the parents rallied, we'll make a difference in state funding.”

Bonge, an Omaha Public Schools parent, described the group as a nonpartisan one that includes members with a conservative mind-set. Bonge said she is not an advocate of big spending, but she doesn't see education as the place to cut. Marian Fey, president of the OPS board, has been an adviser to the group.

State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, now in his seventh year on the Legislature's Education Committee, said he welcomes input from parents. Typically, lawmakers hear only from school administrators and lobbyists.

“I think it's great that parents are stepping forward and saying, 'We want to be part of the discussion,'” he said. “That has been missing.”

However, he questioned some of the numbers the group has used. The organization's website calls for lawmakers to “fully fund” a complicated school aid formula. School officials laid out a similar position in a paper in December. The topic has been and likely will continue to be a subject of debate in the coming weeks.

“The phrase 'fully fund the formula' has become kind of a rallying cry in the K-12 community,” Avery said.

Lawmakers, he said, have funded the formula, but they have had to adjust it most years. “We fund it as much as we can,” he said. “In order to get to an affordable number, that often means we have to change it.”

In fact, he said, he believes lawmakers have been “fairly generous,” given tough economic times.

The current formula would result in a 10 percent state-aid increase next year and a 6 percent increase the following year. Lawmakers, including Avery, have said the state can't afford that much. Gov. Dave Heineman's proposed budget would increase aid 5 percent in each of the two years. That recommendation would require a change in the state aid formula.

Renee Fry, an adviser to the parents' group and executive director of the OpenSky Policy Institute, a Lincoln think tank, said even 10 percent growth doesn't get funding back to historic levels, by the policy research group's calculations. At the same time, enrollment is growing, as are expenses such as health care, salaries and transportation costs.

The parents group website calls for restoring $100 million cut from K-12 funding.

State aid peaked at $950 million in 2010-11. So this year's $852 million in state aid is nearly $100 million less.

However, state funding was bolstered for three years — 2009-10 through 2011-12 — by federal stimulus money, including more than $140 million in 2010-11. Avery said those funds were never intended to be permanent.

With the federal money gone, this year's $852 million in state aid came to an increase of 1.5 percent from the $839.4 million schools received in 2008-09, before federal stimulus dollars.

Bonge, a part-time substitute teacher, said parents see the impacts of such trends. Her children's elementary school, for example, has limited computer technology. With state tests moving online, that means shifting students — at a cost to instruction time — to get access.

In talking with parents from other districts, Bonge said, group members realized the effects go statewide.

The Chadron district is among those that have felt them. Superintendent Caroline Winchester said that district had to cut its budget by $1.8 million in spring 2011, primarily because of a loss of state aid. The district closed four rural schools that had been saving outlying families drive time in a far-flung district with no buses, and it reconfigured grades in its town schools, among other cuts. She'd also like another middle-school reading teacher to ensure fifth-graders, who now are included in middle school, get as much reading instruction time as fourth-graders in elementary school.

Several Chadron parents and community members testified at a hearing in Gering this summer. Winchester said they, too, are seeking to build coalitions.

The parents group continues to look for ideas and input, Bonge said. “We would just really love to extend the olive branch to parents, districts and others interested in the subject.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1223, julie.anderson@owh.com

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