Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The massive Learning Community that’s now being crafted for the metropolitan Omaha area public schools may be the culmination of a dangerous process that began a few years ago in a related arena, and bodes evil for the future of freedom and accountability in Nebraska K-12 education.

The same person who drafted the Learning Community structure, State Sen. Ron Raikes, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, was at the center of some curiously similar, controversial changes to the state’s distance learning system that are still playing out.

But a few bold Nebraskans, led by ESU #6 board member Alan Jacobsen of Denton, Neb., may be able to block the scary, new process of funding and managing public education that seeks to skirt public accountability. If public policymakers listen to leaders like Jacobsen, they may be able to keep K-12 functions on the straight and narrow path of adequate public accountability.

At issue is the way educrats are using the obscure Educational Service Units, non-governmental and non-elected boards and commissions that operate well under the radar, paid education employees in oversight capacities over their own spending decisions, and sweetheart deals crafted with the relatively new and relatively unaccountable Interlocal Agreements, and doing all this probably in violation of Nebraska’s Open Meeting Act.

All this is so that educrats can have things their way and easy access to the public’s money with a minimum of accountability, which they mostly refer to as “fussing” from the “pests” who more properly should be called “concerned citizens” and “government watchdogs.”

This process is already well down the road with recent changes made to Nebraska’s distance education system. See for yourself:


It’s probable that this skirt-the-voters-they’re-too-dumb-to-care-anyway routine will be further cemented in place as the modus operandi of choice in the “One Metro Area, One Tax Levy” structure now being put in place by Omaha area superintendents and their educrat colleagues.

Some background is in order:

Interlocal agreements are supposed to be productive partnerships of two or more units of government to work on joint projects that couldn’t get done as efficiently if one governmental entity tried to do it on its own. In philosophy, it’s a great idea. In practice in Nebraska, interlocal agreements have basically been used by educrats to get around the Legislature’s spending lid, imposed several years ago in a vain attempt to hold the line on school spending.

Everybody knows it . . . except the voters, of course. But that may change, now that the stakes are getting bigger and the functions being funded and managed this way are coming out of the closet into the light of public scrutiny.

Nebraska educrats used interlocal agreements to get a large, expensive distance learning system in place several years ago, run by non-elected officials. Last legislative session, Sen. Raikes introduced LB 1208, now in place, which created the Distance Education Council as the coordinating body. An additional two state employees and up to $600,000 in additional state tax dollars were required to put the changes in place.

Members of that council are not elected, but are paid employees of the Educational Service Units across Nebraska. A “State Chief Information Officer” within the Nebraska Department of Education, who is of course a paid employee and not elected, is the central figure. State and federal tax dollars will fund operations through “technology allowances” figured in to state aid to school districts when school districts aren’t exceeding the spending lid on their own for the allowable exceptions of distance learning, or raking in state lottery funds.

The problem is, as Jacobsen pointed out in a July 26 letter to Raikes, that’s putting the employee in charge of the employer.

Jacobsen contends that Raikes failed to clarify that it wouldn’t be the elected boards of the ESU’s in charge of distance learning in Nebraska, but the non-elected ESU administrators. Jacobsen explained in the letter than he assumed, and reasonably so, that the elected ESU boards will choose who would serve on the board of control for the new distance learning operation. Instead, the bill put the ESU administrators in charge behind the backs of the elected officials and without their say-so.

Why didn’t concerned citizens complain at the time? Jacobsen said that the public, including elected ESU board members, were not given the straight scoop throughout the process, and consequently “we were misled about the governance.”

Apparently, the same people who are in one non-elected, under-the-radar group – the Educational Service Unit Administrators Association, or ESUAA – are now going to be on the Distance Education Council. They have already been conducting business as the Distance Education Council while formally meeting as the ESUAA.

Jacobson contends that the June 28 meeting of the ESUAA, held at ESU #10 in Kearney, was a conflict of interest; was illegal because an organization, not individual representatives, served as a governing board; and violated Nebraska’s Open Meeting Act since votes were taken and decisions were made that were of crucial importance to the distance learning operations.

Just as it is highly unclear who in the state has oversight over the many Interlocal Agreements that education bodies are signing continuously, Jacobsen points out that the oversight over the distance-learning system is highly clouded. Only one annual report to the Legislature is required as an accountability measure in the law. There is no practical way for elected ESU board members to supervise the decisions being made by the paid administrators in distance-learning operations.

“This is probably the most damaging blow to local control that you could foster throughout school districts,” Jacobsen wrote to Raikes. He contended that the change amounts to the start of a statewide ESU.

“Without sufficient elected accountability you put the State of Nebraska in a vulnerable position by creating a scenario that could allow for impropriety of a large proportion that would not be detected for nearly a year and possibly undetected in an annual report,” Jacobsen wrote to Raikes.

In a series of documents -- Raikes’ Statement of Intent on file before the Feb. 13 hearing, the hearing minutes, and the revised Fiscal Note of March 24 -- there was no mention of the buffer between the electorate and the spending and management decisions regarding Network Nebraska.

Jacobsen wrote, “There appears to be a concerted effort to make sure that this is not clearly understood. While I want to believe that this was not intentional I do believe that the board of governance requires review and correction.”

Raikes defended himself in an Aug. 4 reply to Jacobsen by saying that the ESU boards must trust their administrators enough to “appropriately” handle tax dollars, and there’s no reason that should change now that ESU’s will be the governing bodies over distance learning functions in the state. He claimed that the seven-page Education Committee statement and 69-page introduced bill both specified that the Distance Education Council “shall be composed of one administrator or his or her designee from each educational service unit.” He said the summaries which obscured that fact didn’t do so intentionally, but to “be respectful of your time.”

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