Thursday, October 10, 2002

Studying For the OPS Pop Quiz Nov. 5

Yes or no, should Nebraska’s largest school district be allowed to tax people higher than the state legislature said it could from now through 2007-2008?

The request from the Omaha Public Schools to override the state’s spending lid and increase property taxes by up to 15 extra cents per $100 of valuation will be on the Nov. 5 ballot for those who live within OPS.

The measure would cost homeowners in OPS hundreds of dollars in extra property taxes as both the levy and property valuations rise in coming years. It also would cost an unknown amount of additional money in the form of increased rents and higher prices, since about 35 percent of the property within OPS is commercial, rather than residential, and commercial property owners are likely to pass the tax increase on to customers.

All Nebraskans have a stake in what happens, not just OPS taxpayers. Half of OPS’ funding comes from local property taxes, and the rest comes from state and local taxes, which we all pay. When OPS increases its spending, the bill comes to all of us, sooner or later.

We all want what’s best for the more than 40,000 kids in OPS. But what happens Nov. 5 will go far beyond them. It will affect school spending patterns statewide for years, and either encourage or discourage other districts from seeking tax-lid overrides and new bond issues.

So let’s take a look at some study notes:

1. Enrollment in OPS dropped from 57,823 in 1975-76 to 43,039 in the 2000-01 school year. That’s a decline of more than 25 percent. Enrollment has since stabilized and has ticked up a bit. But just in the last 10 years, OPS operations spending has increased by 56 percent, from $208.5 million to $326 million. Meanwhile, its staffing levels are among the highest in the state, at 14.1 pupils per teacher, according to the State Education Department, compared to the class sizes of 30 and 40 kids of years ago. How’s that for a business plan: the number of people served has declined, the number of people employed has increased, and spending is up by more than half.

2. Attendance in OPS has been running far short of actual enrollment. In the 2000-01 school year: 43,039 were enrolled, but average daily attendance was 39,501. That’s 3,538 kids missing or absent each school day. That’s 8.2 percent, nearly double the rate in the rest of the state. We’re paying millions for the OPS staff and facilities to educate kids who aren’t even there. And now they want even more? Wouldn’t a more prudent course of action be to pay the schools for educating only the kids who are there? Oops. That would be a cut in pay instead of a raise for OPS.

3. Title I federal remediation funding for kids who are educationally disadvantaged has increased to OPS from $6.5 million in 1992-93 to $10.2 million in 2000-01, which is 57 percent more. But test scores in the inner-city OPS schools have been called “horrible” by State Education Commissioner Doug Christensen. OPS kids taking the ACT college entrance exam scored 20.8 on a 36-point scale, below the statewide average of 21.6, which is bad enough. Meanwhile, the dropout rate in OPS is 7.45 percent, vs. 2.71 percent statewide. The OPS graduation rate is 86.98 percent, vs. 93.61 percent across the rest of the state. Yet OPS spends more per pupil than the statewide average. If more spending produced more learning and really helped the kids who need the help the most, shouldn’t that show up by now?

4. Special education spending in OPS increased by $5 million in eight years, from $22.7 million to $27.7 million. The No. 1 cause of increased special-education spending is ineffective curriculum and instruction in the early grades, which produce learning disabilities. The lion’s share of the special-ed budget goes to handle disabilities that were caused or made worse by whole language, whole math and the rest of the motley “progressive” education school deforms. Forget the spending increase for OPS. Educating the little bitties right in the first place would remove the need for the spending increase. The only way to force schools to teach kids right is to make them cut their spending so that all they can afford is the right way, which costs significantly less and works significantly better. It’s ironic, but it’s true.

5. OPS operations cost $4,713.76 per pupil in the 1992-93 school year. That increased by nearly 35 percent to $6,346.49 in 2000-01. On top of that, voters in 1999 gave OPS a $254 million bond issue for school construction, which will have to be repaid plus interest in the coming years. It’s Debt Service Hell for OPS taxpayers, for years ahead. This is in an economy in which many people are struggling to make ends meet, and many retirement portfolios have taken a severe downturn in the stock market. But here’s the kicker: if you added up all of the cash funds held in reserve by OPS in the latest financial report on file, you’d find that OPS has more than $88 million sitting in its various cash funds.

Bottom line: Is OPS really cash-strapped?

Or is OPS the one making US cash-strapped?

Let’s try this. Let’s take all of our remaining money, what there is of it, and fashion it into nice, long straps. We can use them to beat the bushes to get people to go out on Nov. 5 and vote “no” on the OPS tax increase.


Annual financial reports, Omaha Public Schools and statewide averages, 2000-01 and 1992-93, http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm

Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, www.netaxpayers.org

The Omaha World-Herald, “OPS sees the need for override vote,” Sept. 29, 2002, p. B-1.

Nebraska Property Assessment and Taxation office, www.pat.nol.org, Lincoln, (402) 471-5984.

“Scraping for Change to Buy Billy a New Textbook,” report on Nebraska K-12 education spending, Nebraska Tax Research Council, January 1998

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