Wednesday, February 04, 2004


Comes now an intrepid reader from Hyannis, Neb., out in Grant County in the Sandhills north of Ogallala. He makes a pretty good case for why the Class I schools surrounding that K-12 district ought to be merged. That's what Sen. Ron Raikes wants: all 260-plus of Nebraska’s tiny country schools consolidated with the town schools.

The hearing room in the Unicameral on this issue (LB 1048) was jammed Tuesday as small-school defenders made their case and heavy-duty educrats spouted off about consistency, compliance and how if they can get rid of 260 elected school boards, that would give a lot more power to unelected educrats . . . oops, I guess that's not exactly what they said, but that's what erasing the Class I schools would mean.

I still say nobody should be forced to give up their local neighborhood school. I still say a much more democratic, cost-effective and sensible solution would be to give all Nebraska pupils the same amount of funding in a no-strings-attached voucher, and let local yokels decide how to spend it, and where.

But there are always exceptions. And this Hyannis reader makes a solid case for why consolidation makes political and economic sense in his neck o' the woods.

In and around Hyannis, there are five Class I country schools within a 28-mile radius on state highways, and two more with budget authority set elsewhere but still part of the system. Our correspondent writes:

1) Because of the ''common levy,'' the high school board gives budget authority to the Class I grade schools, and it's an ''exercise in frustration'' for taxpayers to go to either board to express concerns about spending or programs, because they both pass the buck.

2) In the year 2000, Hyannis Elementary School asked for a budget of more than $400,000 for 20 pupils . . . TWENTY! . . . but after the high school board cut that in half, the town went wild with anger; the two board members who proposed that more reasonable figure were ousted. That's how ''politically impossible'' it is, he says, at least in Hyannis, to cut a Class I school budget.

This Nebraskan said that before the passage of the ''common levy,'' Class I districts levied their own taxes; accountability of the separate school boards was fine. ''The budgets of our area Class I districts were frugal, showed a great deal of planning, and were tailored to the needs of the particular district,'' he wrote. ''Common levy removed the fiscal restraints imposed on each of the Class I districts. . . . As a result, our taxpayers see round after round of tax increases each year.''

According to the Class I audits for the 2002 school year, there are 95 pupils being served by 14 teachers, six aides and assorted other staff in eight schools at an average cost per elementary pupil of $10,697.32 per year.

He concludes, ''This system could easily operate with one central school in Hyannis and two outlying 'attendance centers.' The cost savings would be enormous. Additionally we would be able to offer a more extensive curriculum and higher quality special education services with less travel time for special-ed staff and specialty teachers.''

So maybe the problem is the ''common levy.'' Maybe it's a management problem or a political problem that's isolated to that area. Or maybe he's right, and a straight-up consolidation would fix things.

All I know is, $10,697.32 is 'way too much money to be spending on a grade-school kid for one school year in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

The high school has the same situation: right around 100 students 7-12 and a spending budget of $1,326,950. Meanwhile, according to http://www.nde.state.ne.us, the Hyannis High School test scores aren't impressive. In 2001-02, 45 percent of the seventh- and eighth-graders tested below the national average in reading, and in '02-'03, 57.9 percent of the high schoolers did.

Obviously, major spending cuts have to be made, and alternatives and innovations – one-room schooling comes to mind – need to be put in place.

Overspending is a problem that's by no means limited to the small schools. But it's long past time for educators and taxpayers to start thinking big, and turn these problems from large back into small.

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