Monday, February 22, 2016

A Special Tribute to FFA

It's National FFA Week and I felt like my weekly blog should be dedicated to our FFA sponsors, supporters, and students and all they great things they do for our schools and communities!

I love FFA. I must admit I was never a member of FFA while in school down in Florida. I didn’t know much about it until I became a school administrator. My six years in Franklin, Nebraska opened my eyes to how important FFA can be to a school system and community. Seeing how involved and awesome the York FFA Chapter is over these past seven years has just reconfirmed my thoughts. FFA is a big, big deal.

FFA provides tremendous opportunities for leadership, exploration, and teamwork for its members. I’ve seen kids enter FFA as 9th graders that were insecure, unmotivated little kids and leave four years later as high achieving leaders with bright futures. I’ve seen kids that didn’t embrace the numerous fine arts or athletic opportunities their schools provide latch on to FFA and make it part of their school family. I’ve seen a young man that was in big-time trouble while in middle school get his act together due to his involvement with FFA.

I love how giving FFA is. You need something done in your community? Ask the FFA. I love how much pride the great FFA instructors take in their programs. I love that farm kids and city kids can be working on the same FFA project even though they have such different backgrounds and personal experiences.

FFA kids put in lots of time just like athletes and actors and musicians at school. There are numerous projects and skills they work to develop throughout any given year. It is always fascinating for me to attend the State FFA Competitions in Lincoln. It is something I look forward to every spring.

Our state is in need of more certified Ag teachers and FFA sponsors. If you’re looking for a rewarding career, give this some thought. FFA makes a difference in the lives of students. FFA makes schools better. FFA makes communities stronger. THANK YOU to ALL FFA members, sponsors, and supporters!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

"Talk Doesn't Cook Rice" = "All Hat and No Cattle"

Just some random thoughts on leadership and those that talk too much and deliver too little...

Quite simply, you can’t lead people that don’t trust you. It doesn’t matter how much you know, how good looking you are, how much money you’re worth, or where you come from…..if people don’t trust you, you won’t be their leader. I’ve had a lot of people over the years ask me how you earn trust. It’s simple and it takes time. You earn trust by doing what you say you’re going to do.

There are way too many people that talk a good game. They can be impressive with their words and what they say they’ve done and are going to do. “Talk” is cheap. Results are not. Throughout my 43+ years on Earth, I have grown to despise the big talkers. I’ve found those that talk the most do the least. Give me the person that doesn’t talk about how good they are or how important they are. Give me people that run more than their mouth.

Some would say these big talkers are "all hat and no cattle." Where I come from, this means they want to talk and act like a cowboy without actually being one.

Talking is the easy part, delivering results is not. My hat is off to all the people that deliver more than they talk.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Us vs. Them is a No-Win Situation

Elected officials in Lincoln seem content to stand by and watch the battle for property tax relief drive a dagger between farmers/ranchers and school folks. What a shame it is that too many people in this great state blame schools for their high property taxes. What a shame it is that our state leaders sit back and let school board members and school administrators take the hits that they cause when they know the true culprit is really how they fund K-12 education.

We do have a property tax problem. School districts are too reliant on local property taxes. School leaders have been saying this for several years and it has only been accelerated with the massive swells in land valuation we’ve seen over the past 4-5 years.

School board members and school officials want to be able to provide property tax relief more than you can imagine! That’s why we’ve begun to make sure the public understands that Nebraska ranks 49th in the nation for the percentage of its state budget allocated to K-12 education. We’ve seen the percentage of the state budget dedicated to K-12 education dwindle from 32% in 1998-99 to 27.6% today. There’s a lot of property tax relief in that 4.4% reduction of state budget towards K-12 education!

Yet, some state leaders seem content to sit by and blame high property taxes on “school spending.” Collectively, Nebraska public schools had an average annual spending increase of just 3.5% for the last decade. School spending has not caused the property tax crisis. The way the state funds schools is the problem, especially when land prices soar. York is a great example of what numerous school districts are dealing with. Our total annual revenue has only increased by an average of 2.5% since 2008-09 despite our property tax request increasing by over 45%. Our total spending has only increased by an average of 1.8% annually.

Total State Aid for York Public Schools
• Was $3.7 million in 2008-09
• Was $2.2 million in 2014-15
• Is $1.56 million in 2015-16
• Is projected to be $560,000 for 2016-17

Total Property Tax Request for York’s General Fund
• Was $6,472,903 in 2008-09 (46.5% of our total revenue that year)
• Was $9,395,581 in 2014-15 (58.5% of our total revenue that year)

The dirty little secret is that when local school districts have valuation increases, the state funding formula reduces state aid so more of the burden can be passed on to large landowners. The numbers speak for themselves.

Mike Lucas
York Public Schools

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Power of Learning and Enthusiasm

Monday, February 8th was a long day...I didn't get much sleep the night before...I didn't feel very good...and I had an enormous amount of items on my "to-do list" for the day. I got to the office and started pecking away at my duties for the day without much enthusiasm or excitement...I was really just kind of going through the motions...not super engaged...just getting by and I hate that feeling.

This went on until about 10:00 AM and I couldn't take it any more. I needed to re-focus and get out of this funk so I headed to York Middle School. You see, I'm a VERY LUCKY person. Whenever I get down or overrun with paperwork, adult issues, and the politics of public education, I get to go so awesome students and school staff in action to get me back on track.

In about 45 minutes, I was able to visit every YMS classroom. I saw amazing 6th, 7th, and 8th graders and their teachers working on persuasive paragraphs, the laws of motion, comparing and contrasting bird beaks/animal traits, working on digital presentations, calculating difficult math problems, learning about the Great Depression, preparing book report summaries, and so much more. I saw awesome art work on display and young artists working on projects they were so excited about. I got to see wooden car races in our industrial tech class where the students were so engaged and loud that it was great! I walked through the gym to see a PE class working on their basketball unit.

I saw a high needs special education student working on an iPad with his dedicated teacher as he tried to work on basic site words and pronunciation. As I walked over, he mumbled something to me and I couldn't understand what he was saying. His teacher told me he was saying, "Go York Dukes" and that was it -- I was out of my funk. I was re-energized and ready to go! That little guy made my day!

I saw tremendous para-educators exhibiting lots of patience and empathy as they worked with students in a variety of settings. I saw ultra-organized secretaries keeping things running smoothly. Our custodians were keeping things clean and safe. Our cooks were preparing delicious and nutritious meals. Our nurses were preparing medicine disbursements and checking on students in need.

I'm thankful for my job. Motivation and a "sense of purpose" is everywhere we look. Go York Dukes!

Monday, February 1, 2016

School Choice, School Spending, and Property Tax "Relief"

School choice, public school spending, and property tax relief continue to be “hot topics” around Nebraska so I thought I would weigh in on these important issues from my perspective as the superintendent of schools in York, Nebraska.

School Choice and Accountability
School Choice is already alive and well in Nebraska and has been for decades. We have folks that already choose home schooling all across the state. We also have outstanding parochial schools to choose from in numerous communities. Many of our public schools, in fact, help support our parochial colleagues and students in numerous ways, to include student services, specialized course offerings, staff development, inclusion at assemblies and within community initiatives, and transportation to name a few. Nebraska also already offers option enrollment opportunities for families to pick and choose what public school district they want to attend.

One “choice” we don’t currently offer as a state would be charter schools. Charter schools are NOT public schools. Their chief source of funding is the same as public schools but they are not held to the same standards. While the state department of education often has some oversight, their day-to-day operations are governed by a private board instead of publicly elected officials like the boards of education that serve public schools. Having privately run schools supported by public funds is concerning to many.

Charter school supporters use the same playbook across the country. First, they embed the message that public schools are failing. Next, they work to further starve public schools of funding through vouchers and tax credits. Well, Nebraska’s public schools aren’t failing. We have right at a 90% graduation rate, which is one of the highest in the nation, and the highest average ACT score in the nation for the 17 states that have 80% or more of their kids taking it.

Critics of public schools will say that we as school leaders don’t want school choice. Of course we do, that’s why school choice has been present for decades in this state. It helps ratchet up accountability and if anything is for sure, it is that public school districts, with our annual financial audits, open meetings, high-stakes testing, and unfunded mandates, already deal with more public accountability than any other organizations I’m aware of.

Public School Spending
Every now and again, we are the subject of “scare tactics” from organizations that want you to believe that public schools spend, spend, and spend with very little return on investment. Well, here are some “facts” for your review.
• Total school district disbursements of all funds only grew by an annual average of just 3.5% from 2003-04 through 2013-14 according to data obtained from the legislative fiscal office’s report from August 2015.
• During the same 2003-04 through 2013-14 time span, the number of students educated in Nebraska’s public schools increased 8.16% from 284,181 to 307,398.
• The percentage of children living in poverty statewide increased from 33.93% to 44.93% during that same decade and this resulted in many school districts adding extra expenses of before/after school programming as well as expanded summer offerings.

Property Tax “Relief”

School spending is not the cause of high property taxes; the way we fund public education is the culprit. Legislative Bill 958 is being pushed for tax relief as it would limit spending by schools, cities, counties, and community colleges. It would cap aggregate statewide growth of agricultural land to 3% and would require many decisions about spending to be taken to a vote of the people. Sounds great, right? However, let’s look at the whole story thanks to some important data made available by the Open Sky Policy Institute.

If LB 958 was in place this current fiscal year, it would cause a massive revenue shortfall between $99-144 million just for K-12 schools. Since there is no mechanism in place to replace the lost revenue, school districts that had levy authority left would be forced to simply raise their levies to recoup the lost dollars, which would severely negate any “property tax relief.” However, dozens of districts that are already operating at the $1.05 levy maximum would have no ability to make up their lost revenue and they’d have to consider cutting programs. When all is said and done, LB 958 would not cause widespread property tax relief in numerous areas but it could severely damage school offerings in many districts. Is that what we want or are those unintended consequences?

A better approach to true property tax relief would be to address how Nebraska funds schools so we can improve upon our rank of 49th in the nation for the percent of K-12 education funded by the state. In closing, I hope those that read this will educate themselves on charter schools, real public school spending data, and proposed property tax relief.