They pile up state championships like cordwood.
They launch swarms of Advanced Placement Scholars and International Baccalaureate students.
And they do it while spending less per student than nearly every other Nebraska school district.
Folks in the Millard school district are used to leading the way.
But lately, district leaders worry about falling behind.
Board members and administrators in Nebraska’s third-largest school district say Millard Public Schools can’t sustain the programs that make Millard what it is without additional revenue.
Residents will begin voting this month on whether to give school board members additional authority to raise their taxes for school operations.
Superintendent Jim Sutfin doesn’t hide how he feels about the rare tax-levy override election. Only one of the state’s 244 school districts, Westside Community Schools, currently has an override.
“Fundamentally, this is the biggest question the board of education has ever asked the Millard community,” Sutfin said.
Citing rising costs, slower enrollment growth and stagnant aid from the state, the board members voted to schedule the mail-in election Nov. 14. Ballots will go to the post office Oct. 23 and be delivered to residents, who must return them by 5 p.m. election day.
If voters approve the override, the school board could levy up to 9 extra cents per $100 of property valuation for programs and operations. Sutfin said the extra levy authority would be “an insurance policy” to preserve programs in case state aid and property values don’t go up enough to cover the expected 3 percent increase in next year’s budget.
Here’s how Sutfin sums up what’s at stake.
“Millard is a great place to go to school,” he said. “Do you want it to continue on the path it’s on? Vote yes. If not, vote no, and we make the adjustments, and those adjustments will be deep.”
District officials have undertaken a blitz of 35 community meetings at schools to outline the district’s financial picture to residents. Officials note that a tight state budget isn’t likely to push more money Millard’s way anytime soon.
A pro-override committee has formed called Citizens for Continued Excellence, and campaign signs are expected to sprout across the community in the weeks ahead.
The government watchdog group Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, never shy about weighing in on spending matters, remains neutral on the ballot question, said its president, Doug Kagan.
He said his group has some concerns about the district’s spending for employee retirement buyouts.
But he said district officials made a “good faith” effort to cut the budget before asking that residents chip in more money.
The way Millard officials see it, they’ve done everything right:
» Third-lowest per-pupil spending in the state: $9,634 compared with the state average of $11,902.
» An Advanced Placement culture that last year produced 479 AP Scholars — a designation granted to students who receive scores of 3 or higher on three or more AP exams — plus championships in everything from sports to speech and band.
» Fourth-lowest property tax rate among the 11 districts in the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
But, they say, the Millard district and its financial picture have steadily changed over the past decade.
Enrollment growth has slowed to about half of what it was a decade ago. Total revenues have flattened: The average annual growth was 1.2 percent between 2009 and 2015. State aid changes, they say, have benefited high-poverty and rural districts but not them.
School board President Mike Kennedy says Millard delivers “Champagne programs on a beer budget.”
“These days,” Kennedy said, “it’s white label, light beer.”
The heady days of rapid growth and building schools are over.
The district, Sutfin said, has mostly filled in with development and become “landlocked.” That description might sound familiar. It’s the same cry that officials in the Omaha Public Schools and the Bellevue Public Schools made to characterize their inability to expand beyond their borders and gain from new development on open land.
Citing their static property tax bases, OPS and Bellevue pushed for the shared tax system of the Learning Community, which the Legislature created but then abandoned two years ago under heavy criticism that it hurt some districts while favoring others and didn’t adequately address funding inequities.
Under that system of shared property taxes and state aid, Millard was a winner district, receiving more revenue than without it. However, its school board members steadfastly opposed the system and its centerpiece, the common levy.
Sutfin and Kennedy said they never considered changing their position, primarily because the shared system wasn’t shifting a whole lot of money around, it hurt some Learning Community districts and it treated Omaha-area districts differently from the rest of the state’s districts.
“You want to have a statewide common levy? You treat all school districts the same? We’re at the table having the conversation,” Sutfin said. “But to single out school districts in a group is not a fair policy.”
Sutfin said the fact that Millard benefited from the shared system, which was created to help property-poor districts, is evidence that it is not a property-rich district.
Kennedy said people perceive Millard as a rich district, but its growth has been mostly houses.
“Our biggest piece of property in our tax base is Oak View Mall,” he said.
Although the district has some very nice neighborhoods with expensive homes, it also has a lot of tract houses ranging from $90,000 to $140,000, he said.
“That doesn’t generate much revenue,” he said.
And that’s compounded when valuations don’t rise, a complaint district officials emphasized this year. They point to a 2.67 percent rise in Millard’s valuation, while other districts gained more: 4 percent in OPS, 7.1 percent in Papillion-La Vista and 10.5 percent in Gretna.
District officials sought relief from state lawmakers last session.
State Sen. Rick Kolowski, retired principal of Millard West High School, introduced a bill that would have allowed low-spending districts — Millard included — to levy an additional 3 cents by a two-thirds vote of the school board.
Kolowski pitched Legislative Bill 326 as a way for districts up against the state-imposed levy limit, like Millard, to continue quality programs.
The bill went nowhere.
Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said last week he opposed the bill and told Millard officials that state law already provides a mechanism for districts to seek more revenue: the override election.
Groene said he told Millard officials: “Convince your voters.”
He said the override attempt is the right approach. But he said Millard shouldn’t blame the Legislature for the district’s budget issues.
A lot of the district’s funding issues are “self-inflicted,” he said.
“Millard has chosen to offer things outside the basic free instruction in the public schools,” he said. “They have decided … to buy out teachers’ contracts, give early retirement, at the tune of $3.4 million last year.”
Sutfin disagreed with the characterization that Millard’s issues are self-inflicted.
If its programs were expensive, then its per-pupil spending would be up, too, officials say.
Per-pupil spending growth, Millard vs. statewide
Kennedy said the voluntary termination programs save money.
Older teachers cost more money for salary and health benefits compared with younger ones, he said.
“It actually is a net plus to the taxpayer,” he said.
Sutfin said Millard reduced that benefit this year in response to legislation passed to curtail its use.
Groene said it’s true Millard is a low-spending district, but district officials “ought to count their blessings” because their percentage of poverty students is lower than that of other districts.
About one-fifth of Millard’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared with three-quarters of qualifying students in OPS. “That is a huge spending advantage, that you don’t have the cost,” Groene said. “Does OPS get a lot more state aid? Yes, because of the poverty allowance.”
In public forums on the override, Millard officials have highlighted how Millard received the same amount of state aid this year as in 2009-10 — $75.8 million — while OPS saw its aid rise more than 62 percent, from $177.4 million to $288.2 million over the same time period. District officials also note that the Lincoln Public Schools saw a 60 percent increase.
However, such comparisons depend on the base year.
Millard’s aid had jumped in 2009-10 because of an infusion of stimulus money into state aid and other factors. If the prior year, 2008-09, is used as the base year, Millard’s aid has increased about 31 percent, OPS’s 68.4 percent and Lincoln’s 96.4 percent.
Millard officials point out that since 2009-10 they’re educating an additional 1,200 students, and their number of poverty students, who can require more resources to educate, has increased by 2,000.
“Two thousand students is a high school,” Sutfin said.
Kennedy said the state aid formula is now heavily weighted to steer money to districts with poverty.
He said Millard officials aren’t arguing that Lincoln and OPS don’t deserve that aid. Instead, he said, they are pointing out that the formula doesn’t help districts that are seeing an increase in poverty but not extreme poverty.
Factors that steered more aid to Millard five years ago were taken out. Lawmakers eliminated the elementary class size allowance, instructional time allowance and teacher education adjustment.
The district had been getting $12.1 million in 2012-13 through those factors, which recognized the district’s longer calendar, small class sizes and highly educated teachers.
Kennedy said the school board could have built another high school but instead chose to operate three large high schools to gain efficiencies, saving on administration, maintenance and custodial staff. He said big schools also can offer a wide variety of courses while making more efficient use of teachers.
Operating a single district stadium, Buell at Millard South, keeps costs down, he said.
Officials say they’ve made budget cuts since 2010, and more will come if the override fails. So far, cuts have ranged from eliminating the culinary arts career academy and the middle school alternative program to cutting 53 teaching and administrative positions, 14 custodial and maintenance positions and three nursing positions.
The personnel cuts were achieved by attrition, Sutfin said.
Asked whether layoffs would be necessary if the override fails, Sutfin answered: “We don’t know, because we don’t know what happens with property values and we don’t know what happens with state aid.”
He said what happens with those also will determine how much of the 9-cent authority the school board would need to impose.
If the levy override fails, class sizes would likely have to rise, Sutfin said. The district’s K-5 elementary average was 21.4 last year, the highest in at least 13 years.
Harvey Oaks had the highest average class size. at 24. A fifth-grade classroom at Harvey Oaks Elementary had 28 kids.
“In years past we might have split that,” he said. “We no longer split that. We go to 28.”
For comparison, the average OPS class size in 2016-17 for grades K-6 was 22.78. In Elkhorn Public Schools, the K-5 average was 22.
Kennedy said that with the district built out, there should be less need for future bond issues.
The last bond issue — $79.9 million in 2013 — will provide enough money to pay for three more years of maintenance and repair-type construction projects, officials said.
In the future, the district won’t need to build new schools, but some level of construction will still be required to maintain, repair and upgrade buildings, they said.