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(Neb)-UPDATE - Chadron School Board Approves Budget And Tax Levy

By: John Axtell Posted at: 09/12/2017 08:06 AM
CHADRON -       The Chadron School Board gave unanimous approval Monday night to an $14.6-million dollar budget for the school year that began last month and to a $5.7-million dollar property tax levy at a rate of $1.05 per hundred dollars of assessed value.

      That's the maximum allowed and the same as last year, but will still bring in more revenue because of increased valuation in the district. There was confusion about how much additional money would come in with Superintendent Dr Caroline Winchester saying about $300,000 and the official hearing notice published by the district putting the increase at $600,000.

      Tuesday morning, Dr Winchester tracked down the reason for the discrepancy: she had accidentally used the $5.1-million dollar levy from 2015-16 in the hearing notice instead of the actual $5.4-million levy for the current 2016-17 year.

      Winchester emphasized during a half-hour public hearing on the budget that the district won't spend the entire $14.6-million because that total includes reserves and that the actual spending should be less than $13-million.

       Winchester explained that the general fund levy is a little larger that last year while the special building fund levy is a little smaller because the legislature raised the minimum local effort rate, the rate a district must be at to be eligible for its full share of state aid.

     The new local effort rate went up from a dollar per hundred to a little over $1.02 per hundred, but the overall tax rate lid stayed at $1.05 - leaving less than 3-cents per hundred available for the special building fund.

      In addition to the $300,000 increase in property taxes, the Chadron Public Schools are getting about $200,000 more in state aid, but Winchester warned that the $300,000 increase in property tax revenue means the district will lose about that same $300,000 in state aid for the 2018-19 school year.

     Two members of the public, Chadron-area ranchers Casey Schuhmacher and Don Mandelko, spoke during the budget hearing. Both said they don't want to hurt the schools, but that property owners in the district - especially farmers and ranchers - need help.

     Mandelko said the situation Winchester described of having to keep the property tax rate at the maximum or lose state aid but losing state aid anyway when the local effort rate brings in more tax revenue is a vicious circle.

     He said the man in charge of state school lands in Nebraska told him that Dawes County had the highest percentage of taxes versus rent on grassland in the state, putting additional economic pressure on the farmers and ranchers who need to use those lands. Mandelko told the board the only way to fix the system is to get involved and that as far as he's concerned, "it's time."

     Schuhmacher urged the board to lower the tax request by the amount being gained through valuation increases, saying it would give the district "good ammunition" in countering claims by Gov Pete Ricketts and eastern Nebraska lawmakers that the problem in school funding is that local districts are always looking to spend more money rather than cutting taxes. Winchester replied that the money was needed to fill a moral obligation to provide the district's students the level of education they'll need to be successful in life.

      Chadron High School Principal Jerry Mack said he's studied the district's spending and that it's still lower than it was when the district split the elementary schools along grade levels to create the primary and intermediate schools. Winchester added that the average increase in spending during her years in charge has been about 1% or less than the increase in utilities and insurance.

      Winchester and board member Jim O'Rourke emphasized that the Chadron district and school board have taken a leading role over the last several years in lobbying the legislature to fix the flaws in the school finance system and reduce the reliance on property taxes by having the state live up to past promises on levels of support.

      Winchester said they were trying to shift the amount coming from the different types of taxes to make the "3-legged stool" of support more stable, but always seem to run into accusations by the governor and others that they were trying to increase taxes. Mandelko agreed, adding that "fairness isn't as common as it once was."


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