The North Platte Public Board of Education unanimously increased school spending by $1.85 million Monday, with the vote coming near the end of a two-hour meeting.The board held a public hearing on the tax levy for 30 minutes at the beginning of the sesson, then held a regular meeting filled with reports, and then took a vote on the budget and corresponding tax levy.
North Platte taxpayer Bernice Ziegler, 90, was the only taxpayer to testify at the public hearing. Ziegler politely blasted the board for not heeding the wishes of taxpayers as much as the wishes of the administration.
During discussion, board members repeatedly said they have been watching and working on the budget for nearly a year, and they think it is a good budget.
The board approved a tax levy of $1.19 per $100 worth of property, slightly lower than a year ago. The final school levy is not quite set yet; it must be approved by the county commissioners, who will have little choice but to go along with the school district.
Although the school's tax levy will be steady to slightly lower, there has been a 6.78% increase in property valuations, so the school district will claim $1.85 million more from property taxpayers than last year.
Business manager Stuart Simpson said the schools need more property taxes because they suffered a declining enrollment of 119 students last year, which cut $1 million from the district’s state aid allotment. State aid is based on the number of students.
Also, state aid was reduced across the board to keep the state budget balanced. North Platte’s share of the cut was $465,000.
The school district also paid out $750,000 more in salaries than the year before, under the second year of a two-year agreement with teachers, plus pay hikes for the top 21 administrators.
Echoing a statement made in committee discussions, Simpson said reducing the levy by 1 cent would cut $233,000 from the school’s income, while reducing an average individual’s property taxes by only $1 a year or so.
'Not so fast'
Ziegler told the board she could accept some increase in the general fund, but not a $1.5 million increase that was approved.
She was limited to five minutes of testimony during the hearing and she made the most of it.
She called for reductions in the building and general funds, and said the district should be able to cut their levy to around $1.10 with cooperation from all the employees. She noted that employees who own property would benefit by lower taxes, in effect, a "raise without work."
Ziegler leveled specific criticism at the district’s bond fund that is set aside for “qualified capital purposes" – the Qualified Capital Purposes Undertaking Fund (QCPUF) -- that calls for another $186,000.
She said bonds for those “qualified purposes” are approved without a vote of taxpayers, unlike bonds for new buildings.
But Ziegler noted that the QCPUF is limited to specific, vital purposes, such as eliminating environmental hazards and making the air safe to breathe inside school buildings.
Implying that the QCPUF is misused, Ziegler asked the board several pointed questions, including:
• What exactly are these bonds paying for?
• What was the total amount of each bond when it was issued?
• What is the interest rate?
• What was the need to issue the bonds?
Ziegler said she expected the QCPUF bonds to be paid down and call for less tax. But instead, the budget calls for the tax fund to increase.
“I believe the public is entitled to a complete detailed explanation,” she said. “I know that the public should be on the lookout that no more such bonds are added to the budget without our knowledge.”
Ziegler called for the school board to “get in line, reduce spending… and actually lower the tax levy before approving the proposed budget. You have the time and ability to honor the public’s request, as you have for the administrators.”
During discussion after Ziegler’s testimony, Business Manager Stuart Simpson said some of QCPUF bonds were used for new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at Lincoln, Buffalo, Washington and Cody elementary schools. He said the legislature has tightened restrictions on how QCPUF bonds can be used, but North Platte is grandfathered.
Nebraska statues say that QCPUF bonds are to be used primarily to clean up environmental hazards or mold, and also can be used to "enhance air quality conditions in new or existing school buildings."
"We followed all legal and fiscal agent policies on issuing the bonds for the project," Simpson told the Bulletin later.
Before the board voted on the tax levy, school board member Matt Pederson said the board has ongoing regular discussions about the budget.
“It’s not something we take lightly,” he said.
Pederson also said the public schools have “very limited sources of funding."