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Schools are right to stand up for their interests

As published in the Omaha World-Herald.


The spread of COVID-19 is a public health and economic crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in living memory. Public schools have responded rapidly, with many districts totally retooling how they teach by moving learning online in a single week. One teacher called it “Apollo 13,” for the way educators are responding to adversity and rebuilding their instructional spaceship in midair.

This crisis also reminds us how crucial schools are to public health and public safety. They provide two meals a day, five days a week, to hundreds of thousands of Nebraska children, and offer a place where kids are safe and cared for. Despite unprecedented circumstances, meal distribution has continued, and our public schools are doing their very best to meet all children’s needs. There’s a darker side to this, too: Medical facilities are rapidly running out of personal protective equipment to keep health care workers safe from the virus. They are requesting items like goggles and goggle sterilization equipment from schools’ science classrooms, and schools are responding as fast as they can. This is an all-hands-on-deck emergency, so many Nebraskans are dismayed that some continue to promote a property tax bill that would harm schools of all sizes (originally Legislative Bill 974, now LB 1106). The bill has always been punitive to schools. But to promote it now, in the midst of a public health and economic crisis, when even the legislative session has been suspended, is misguided. The bill recently advanced from the Legislature’s Revenue Committee during the emergency appropriations discussion. COVID-19’s impact on our economy has already been devastating, and our nation is entering a recession. Omaha alone may lose millions in projected revenue as the virus affects plans for major events like the College World Series, the Olympic Swim Trials and Berkshire Hathaway’s annual conference.

Meanwhile, thousands of our friends and neighbors are losing income and jobs due to the indefinite but necessary closure of businesses. Nebraskans are rightly focused on keeping their loved ones safe and healthy and on keeping food on their tables. Furthermore, school district fears about LB 1106 have already come true: The bill would make lasting changes to how Nebraska funds K-12 public education based on previously projected one-time surplus revenue. In other words, under LB 1106, when the economy took a downturn, school funding — and any purported property tax relief — would plummet. The recession schools feared has arrived, even before the bill was voted on. Property tax reform is an important issue, but LB 1106 was never targeted to provide relief to the taxpayers who need it most. The bill never had a reliable funding source. And in the long run, it would decimate local control and prevent schools from covering basic expenses like teacher salaries and health insurance.

Real property tax reform would require bringing all stakeholders to the table, including agricultural interests, schools, business leaders and others, and studying the issue carefully to reach a compromise based on facts. LB 1106 is not that bill.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen Nebraskans from all walks of life spring into action to protect their loved ones and neighbors. The Legislature should be commended for its quick work in recent days to advance emergency funding to deal with the oncoming spike in unemployment and provide personal protective equipment to health care workers. When we look back at this crisis, we will remember the many acts of heroism and sacrifice made by our state’s health care professionals, first responders, teachers, retail employees and many others.

Nebraskans across our state deserve praise for their selfless actions during this extraordinary time, and they deserve serious leaders who understand their needs. And our state’s public schools, a backbone of our economy, deserve leaders who will support them during this intensely challenging moment.

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