Friday, April 23, 2004


This school year, there are five school districts in Nebraska with budgets totaling over a third of a million dollars that don’t have any students or teachers.

Remember the ghost towns of the Wild, Wild West? Well, these are the ‘’ghost schools’’ of the wild, wild world of school finance.

According to a report from the office of State Auditor Kate Witek prepared for State Sen. Ronald Raikes, the five ‘’ghost schools’’ are all small, rural, Class I districts in towns that are not even on the map. Raikes, of Lincoln, chairman of the Education Committee, wants to force consolidation of the smaller districts into larger ones. That measure failed in the legislative session just passed because of strong grass-roots opposition from pro-rural schools advocates.

The districts and their pupil-less budgets are:

Linwood, $168,132

Riverview, $51,000

Norden, $8,500

Kalamazoo, $38,846

Panhandle, $92,650

Total: $359,128

Raikes has been using anecdotes such as these as evidence for why consolidation makes sense.

When asked how it came to be that school districts with zero enrollment were adopting budgets, Auditor Witek explained that they filed their budgets as a hedge because they couldn’t be sure whether or not they would have pupils the following school year or not. If just one or two families moved into their district, especially if a child or children had special needs, the money had to be set aside. Mrs. Witek said taxes levied for those budgets flowed into other school districts where living, breathing children were indeed enrolled. The money didn’t just sit in a fund.

Raikes and other pro-consolidation forces may have a field day with this as they try to bash the reputation of the Class I schools on economic grounds. But there’s a whole ‘nother, much bigger ghost afoot:


And guess where most of them are?

Not in the itty bitty Class I schools. They’re in the big metropolitan districts -- especially the Omaha Public Schools.

You can spot these ghosts on enrollment data compiled by the Nebraska Department of Education from district annual reports, on the website http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm

Glide down to the bottom of each annual report to see the attendance data.

Last school year across the state, there were 277,286.40 students enrolled, K-12, on the day in the autumn on which districts take their ‘’average daily membership’’ count. That’s enrollment -- how many kids are supposed to be there, on paper. Throughout the school year, kids move in and out and so forth. The number changes. It’s a ‘’fudge factor.’’

But the fudge runs deep in Nebraska. When it comes to the actual attendance count, called ‘’average daily attendance,’’ there were only 262,530.51 children attending school in Nebraska on any given day.

That’s a difference of 14,756 students. If the same gap between enrollment and actual attendance keeps up for this school year, since the State Auditor found we’re spending $13,843.66 per pupil, that means we’re paying for $204.3 million worth of education . . . for students who aren’t even there.

Put these students together into one district and they’d form one of the biggest school districts in the state.

I call them ‘’ghost students.’’

Percentage-wise, it means 5.3 percent of our statewide enrollment isn’t actually attending class, day in and day out.

The Omaha Public Schools more than doubles that statewide average, with 4,092 pupils missing each school day, or 10.9 percent.

Heck, that number alone would constitute one of the largest school districts in Nebraska. We could call it ‘’The OPS No Shows.’’

Of course, we pay for all students -- including ‘’ghost students.’’

Other metro districts in the state, including Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte and Millard, had gaps right around the state average of over 5 percent.

But a spot-check of Class I schools showed a lot less of a gap. Here are the percentage differences between children enrolled and children actually in attendance at these little schools:

Juniata Elementary, Adams County, 2 percent

Merriman, Cherry County, 3 percent

Richland, Colfax County, 3 percent

Rokeby, Lancaster County, 3 percent

Unadilla, Otoe County, 3.8 percent

See? The great, big districts are getting paid for a lot more ‘’ghost students’’ than the itty, bitty ones.

So yes, Sen. Raikes, it’s deplorable that $359,128 in tax funds were allocated for students in Class I schools who didn’t wind up coming.

But what does THAT make the $204.3 million in tax funds that are allocated for kids who aren’t there everywhere else, especially in OPS?

It makes taxpayers mad enough as it is to be spending $13,843.66 per pupil per year. But it should make them REALLY mad to be spending that kind of dough on kids who aren’t even there to learn, literally as well as figuratively.

Obvious solution: change the funding formula to be tied to average daily attendance -- actual usage of the public service -- instead of the one-time enrollment count.

And then audit that attendance on a spot-check basis throughout the school year to cut down on the hedging and the fudging.

We ain’t afraid o’ no ghosts. We just can’t afford ‘em no mo’.


Last in a series on Nebraska school finance issues based on a March 4, 2004, report from the office of State Auditor Kate Witek prepared for State Sen. Ronald Raikes. Data sources included the September 2003 Fall Personnel Report from the Nebraska Department of Education, and other 2003-04 statistical information reported by districts to the state.

For Nebraska public education spending reports and to check your district’s attendance record, see statewide and individual district annual report information on:


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