Fremont Public Schools Superintendent Mark Shepard, along with Executive Director of Student Services and Business Affairs Brad Dahl, gave a presentation to the Dodge County Board of Supervisors on the school district’s finances during Wednesday’s board meeting.
The presentation comes after county officials, over the last two meetings, appeared to question the school district’s spending and property tax levies as part of discussions on approving the county’s tax levies and budget, which saw an increase in the tax request by around 27 percent.
During those conversations, board members argued that, while the county levy jumped from $.22 per $100 of valuation to $.27 per $100, other entities, like Fremont Public Schools, still account for a significantly higher portion of the overall property tax levy at $1.26 per $100 of valuation.
As the Tribune has reported, during the last meeting, County Clerk Fred Mytty asked Supervisor Lon Strand how Fremont Public Schools could have such a higher levy than other school districts, such as the smaller Dodge school district, which sits at $.59 per $100 of valuation. Strand suggested that the Fremont district seems “to spend money faster than any”—a comment for which he apologized on Wednesday after hearing Shepard and Dahl’s presentation.
“I did not have enough information to make that statement,” Strand said.
The presentation sought to explain Fremont Public Schools’ budgeting and spending and to discuss the district’s challenges.
Shepard, for instance, praised that Fremont Public Schools has been able to balance its budget without spending beyond its revenue and dipping into reserves.
“We’ve listened to the governor and candidates debate, and they’ve talked about the fact that the state continues to dip into the rainy day fund,” Shepard said. “One thing that I’m really proud of and you’re going to see it in a minute is that our district right now over the last five years has created a balanced budget based on current expenditures offset by current revenue. So we are not dipping into our reserves whatsoever.”
He also pointed out that in past years where the school district’s budget increased, it never increased by more than 3 percent. This year, it increased by 1.89 percent.
The state imposes a $1.05 levy limit on school districts, and in its general fund, Fremont’s levy generally sits right around that number. The district’s total levy exceeds that because of bond issues that were passed by voters in years past that led to the construction of new facilities—including Fremont Middle School, Bell Field Elementary School and others. Those bond issues aside, the district’s levy has been fairly consistent, Shepard argued.
“Our board continues to be very conservative,” Shepard said.
Among the biggest challenges for the district is lagging growth in state aid, leading to property taxes accounting for a higher share of revenue, Shepard said.
While Fremont might have a higher assessed value than other districts, Dahl argued, its larger student population leads to greater needs. Fremont has about $460,000 of assessed value behind each student, while smaller districts like Logan View, North Bend and Arlington have more than $1 million behind each student.
That allows those districts to generate more money at a lower levy “and do things that we quite frankly cannot,” Dahl said.
“Our rural partners are truly our rural partners,” Shepard added. “They know this data, we’ve shared this data with them, so we’re not throwing anybody under the bus. It’s the reality of what we’re dealing with—and they have a different reality.”
Additionally, Fremont spends $10,482 per student compared to the state average of $12,230. It ranks 16th out of 245 school districts with only 15 districts spending less money per student. That’s by necessity, Dahl argues.
The district spends approximately 84 percent of its money on instruction—88 percent on personnel—Dahl said.
“When we have to reduce our budget, we have very little wiggle room outside of people,” Dahl said.
Because the levy in the general fund sits right at the state-imposed levy limit of $1.05, the district can’t collect taxes in other funds, such as the school’s building funds, which makes it difficult to find funding for building maintenance.
“Some of our rural schools have the ability to do that more because they’re well underneath the levy limitation,” Dahl said.
Strand, in apologizing for his assessment at the last meeting, said that he was speaking from his experience as a former board member at a rural school district, and that the presentation highlighted some differences between smaller and larger districts.
“I served on a rural school board for 18 years, and I must admit, I had tunnel vision because if [the levy] wasn’t under a dollar in a rural school in Nebraska, you weren’t doing something right, and I always looked at all the big schools that were always rolling in the $1.20s, and I always felt, until today, that you weren’t using your money efficiently,” Strand said. “What you’re doing with your per pupil spending, and your assessed value per pupil, you’re doing the best you can.”
Also at Wednesday’s board meeting, Mytty presented the board with corrected tax comparisons that explored the property tax requests and valuations of various tax comparisons. That information was presented to the board at the previous meeting to add context to the approved levies, but was later determined to be incorrect.
That information, among other things, mistakenly stated that the city of Fremont had seen an increase in its tax request by 35 percent since last year. However, those numbers represent the increase in the tax request from 2016 to 2018—not from this past year alone. Fremont’s tax request actually increased by 9.2 percent, according to revised numbers provided by Mytty.
The board took no action besides receiving the revised information—the information was provided just for context, not part of the official document, which contained the levy rates, that was approved at the last meeting.