School consolidation has been a recurring topic of debate in Nebraska for generations. Now, Nebraska lawmakers are saying, the time has come to look anew at the issue and address it.
It’s an appropriate occasion for such a discussion. Nebraska currently has 244 school districts covering a large range of student population sizes. At the same time, lawmakers should be mindful not to exaggerate the cost-saving possibilities from consolidation.
“We have to have that big discussion,” said State Sen. Justin Wayne, a former member of the Omaha Public Schools board. A large set of rural senators voiced support last week for a school consolidation study that Wayne proposed.
Public school districts account for about 60% of all property tax collections in Nebraska, said State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion. So, looking for and achieving school efficiencies are important in holding down the property tax burden for the long term, he and other rural lawmakers said.
“It’s a great discussion to have,” said State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard. Local schools spur a tremendous sense of community, and that needs to be respected. At the same time, he said, it serves the public interest to examine consolidation possibilities that could reduce costs for school operations.
In an amendment, Wayne proposed that school districts complete a consolidation feasibility study in cases where two or more high schools from different school districts compete in one or more extracurricular activities as a single team.
Wayne said he introduced the measure, which he ultimately withdrew under an agreement with colleagues, to spur 30 minutes of discussion on the floor of the Legislature and build interest in a legislative study to be headed by State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, chairman of the Education Committee. The study would look at the best options to encourage consolidation, where practical, for consideration during the 2020 legislative session.
Senators acknowledged the political difficulties if lawmakers would move toward making consolidation mandatory, rather than voluntary. But if discussions at the Legislature on the issue next year are as thoughtful as the one state senators held last week, Nebraskans will be well served.
Two senators offered cautionary notes about cost savings. State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of the Elkhorn area, chairwoman of the Revenue Committee, praised the discussion but cautioned that the consolidation possibilities shouldn’t be exaggerated. Twenty-seven Nebraska counties already have only one school district.
Plus, she said, consolidation can run into a major obstacle when there is a big difference in the property tax rates between two districts.
State Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood described a school consolidation that occurred in his area. A positive from the consolidation was a strengthening of academic programs for students. There wasn’t a significant cost savings, though, because the payroll costs increased as teacher salaries fit within a pay scale for bigger-population schools.
A 2013 study by two Nebraska economists concluded that cost efficiencies tend to grow as a school district approaches the 8,000-student mark and then decline as the size grows above 8,000. Merged districts don’t tend to see major cost efficiencies if their student numbers are far smaller than that level, the economists said.
During the legislative discussion, Wayne emphasized that the most realistic consolidation prospects are for rural schools in much of eastern Nebraska. In the west, consolidation options are less numerous, given the long distances that many students already must travel. He also called for a new look at school consolidation in Douglas County — though proponents need to recall the political firestorm that erupted in 2005 when OPS unilaterally attempted to impose a “one city, one school district” policy.
Over the generations, Nebraska has traveled a very long road on the school consolidation issue. In the 1920s, the state had some 7,200 school districts, the most of any state. At certain times — 1949, 1995, 2005 — state leaders have taken action to encourage or require consolidation.
Now, the state is appropriately turning again to the issue. A practical-minded study, analyzing all the data, can help guide the state toward a responsible approach.