Administration building

The busy Nebraska legislative session was a primary topic of discussion at Monday night’s board of education study session.

During the hour-long meeting, which precedes the regular business meeting, three board members shared details of testimony they already had given — or were going to give —  about various bills of concern to the Norfolk Public Schools district.

Board member Sandy Wolfe recently testified against Legislative Bill 409, as did Superintendent Dr. Jami Jo Thompson.

The bill would change the base limitation and local effort rate for school districts. Essentially, it would adjust the state aid education formula (TEEOSA), affecting how much money school districts like Norfolk receive to help fund its programs.

Norfolk lost $1.6 million in state aid last year, and based on numbers projected by Bill Robinson, associate superintendent of business, finance and facilities, the district would lose about an additional $867 if LB409 passes.

Thompson pointed out Norfolk is one of the most efficient districts in the state with its money, and that it can’t stand to lose anymore state aid.

“When you look at the state website they list us as 21st out of 246 as far as cost per pupil,” Thompson said. “Our cost per pupil is $11,168, and the state average is $11,901.”

Thompson also shared that given that 84.6 percent of the district’s budget is staffing, if they lost additional funds — even a small amount — it would be hard to make cuts without affecting staff and students.

Board member Patti Gubbels also recently gave testimony in opposition to several bills — LBs 651 and 662.

LB651 is called the Nebraska Reading Improvement Act.

“This is a bill when you read through it, there are parts of the bill that you say, ‘This is good,’ " Gubbels said. “It is good for us to really want to improve reading and learning to read. A lot of the things in the bill are things, from my perception, that elementary teachers are already doing.”

It’s the portion of the bill that deals with retaining students in the same grade that concerns educators.

“If children are not reading at grade level proficiency by the end of third grade, they would be retained,” Gubbels said of the proposal. “There was a lot of opposition to that, obviously, because of all of the research that shows that retention really does not work, that it leads to increases in dropout rates, to lower self efficacy. Some kids do make some short-term reading gains, but those are not sustainable long term.”

Ultimately, Gubbels said she believes the bill over-regulates and prescribes a “one-size-fits-all” approach to reading instruction.

Gubbels also spoke out against LB662, which would change Nebraska’s education accountability system, AQuESTT, which was just implemented in 2016. The bill’s proposed replacement would rate schools from A to F as opposed to AQuESTT’s designations of “excellent,” “great,” “good” or “needs improvement.”

Gubbels — who thinks AQuESTT is forward thinking — said it needs to be given an adequate chance to succeed before it’s replaced.

Finally, board member Tammy Day spoke about testimony she was to give Tuesday in opposition to LB630, the Adopt the Independent Public Schools Act.

This bill would allow charter schools to form in Nebraska.

“Basically, the charter school legislation gives independent schools, which can appoint their own boards or whoever they want to govern them, it gives them the same access to funding that public schools have,” Day said. “So it basically takes funding away from us and takes it out of public oversight, which is one of the most disturbing parts to me because we’re all locally elected from this community, whether they have kids in school or not, they have a say about how we oversee their tax dollars, and that does not exist in charter schools.”

Though adding school choice is often the argument for bringing charter schools to the state, Day said she thought school choice was already offered through Montessori programs, parochial schools and home school options.

In addition to the fact that charter schools not having to follow the same rules and regulations that public schools do, there were a few other details in the bill that concerned Day.

For example, she said, school boards would be required under the bill to grant a leave of absence to any teacher employed in the school district who requests to leave to teach at an independent public school. The board would have to give them a maximum of two years of leave, and at the end of that time, if they wanted to come back to the district, the board would be required to accept them. The teacher would then be entitled to retirement and all other benefits earned during previous employment with the district.

The bill would also require public school districts in which a charter school resides to provide transportation for students to go to the charter school.

The Norfolk Public Schools board of education plans to continue to closely follow this legislative session and its many education-related bills.

It approved separating the policy for the Standing Committee on Policy and Government relations into two policies, so that the committee could be separated into one focused on policy and one focused on government relations and legislation. After the second and final reading of these policies at Monday night's meeting, board members will be officially assigned to the government relations committee at the next regular board meeting.

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