Anderson Middle Schoo

A community forum on the Millard Public Schools' levy override election is held at Anderson Middle School on Wednesday, Sept. 27.

The Millard Public Schools are seeking public approval of a levy override of up to 9 cents — not, officials say, because they want to raise residents’ property tax rates, but as insurance against unpredictable state education funding.

Millard parents have made it clear in district surveys and at public meetings that they want their children to receive more than a “basic education,” Superintendent Jim Sutfin says, and Millard provides an excellent one. One strong result: Millard students take 28 percent of the Advanced Placement exams given in Nebraska though they make up just 7 percent of students statewide.

But the Millard district has grown faster than state aid to education, and after several years of tightening its belt through program and personnel cuts, the district’s board decided it had reached a budgetary decision point.

Sutfin says if the district must balance its budget again through spending cuts alone, the next round would hit classrooms hard. He says larger class sizes, fewer specialized programs and a risk of decreased academic rigor are likely in the absence of a new funding stream.

The district is seeking the flexibility to raise property tax rates incrementally and has vowed to tap that authority only if other funding sources fall short.

Given the district’s past financial performance, this appears to be a reasonable approach. Voters should approve the levy override, then hold their school board accountable for the pledge to take only what the Millard district needs to protect its academic excellence. Mailed ballots must be returned to the Douglas or Sarpy County Election Commission by 5 p.m. Nov. 14.

The Millard board’s record of fiscal discipline gives it credibility as it seeks this boost. Before requesting the override, the board restructured elementary school band and strings and ended its culinary arts career academy. It closed the middle school alternative program, reduced the hours of para- educators and stopped teaching Latin and Japanese.

Since 2010, the district has cut 54 full-time positions: 41 teachers, three administrators, seven custodians and three school nurses. Over the same span, Millard schools have absorbed a 1 percent annual increase in students while holding annual spending increases to about 1 percent. Among the state’s school districts, Millard spends the third least per student.

Parents appear satisfied with the quality of education Millard provides — more than 97 percent gave the district good or excellent marks in a recent survey. Strong schools provide benefits for Millard-area homeowners, whether or not they have children attending school. Among them: greater economic prosperity, improved public safety and higher property values.

School district budgeting is difficult. The State of Nebraska, instead of laying out a predictable plan for what school boards can expect from the state, typically decides its funding stream for a given year, then tweaks the state aid formula to fit its finances.

This year, there is talk of structural change to state funding for schools that could uproot the school budgeting process. Millard is seeking funding stability so the board can plan and spend its tax dollars more effectively.

In making its arguments for the override, Millard chose an abnormal year, 2009-10, as its baseline to show slower-than-expected growth of state aid. That year saw a tremendous infusion of state aid from federal stimulus dollars. Then-Gov. Dave Heineman made it clear the added funding was temporary.

Even so, it is striking to see that Millard received the same $75.8 million in state aid in 2017-18 that it did in 2009-10. This, despite serving 1,211 more students and addressing inflation, increased health care costs and pay increases over time for employees. Millard has to make up the difference through state or property tax funds or by cutting out of its budget hole.

Approving the override would help avoid fundamentally changing the character of a school district Millard-area residents spent decades building.

Residents should vote YES and approve the levy override of up to 9 cents.

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