Omaha World-Herald. Nov. 21, 2021.

Editorial: Nebraska educators, worn down in the COVID era, need relief

This school year, many thought, would be a time when Omaha-area schools would make major strides toward getting back to “normal” in the wake of the COVID crisis. It’s turned out, unfortunately, that far from lightening teachers’ burdens, 2021 has added to them.

Staff vacancies force teachers to sub for others, take on additional students or even attempt to teach a subject for which they’re not certified. Teachers are finding that after last year’s topsy-turvy COVID-disrupted instructional year, the divergence in classmates’ academic performance levels is now exceptionally wide. Addressing that need requires more one-on-one attention with students — yet teachers now have reduced opportunity to provide that extra help.

Meanwhile, the return of “normal” in-person school routines has revealed that a distressingly large percentage of students have returned to class without needed social skills, heightening teachers’ frustrations over classroom management.

Altogether, the pressures on educators have mounted enormously — here in the Omaha area, but also statewide and across the nation. News coverage by The World-Herald’s Emily Nitcher recently examined the problem in depth.

“This year is a more challenging year,” said Tim Royers, president of the Millard Educational Association. “I think that’s the major piece the public doesn’t get.”

The return to classroom instruction has teachers concerned about addressing students’ social and emotional needs, said Jared Wagenknecht, president of the Papillion La Vista Education Association. The number of students “with significant mental health needs has become daunting.”

All these conditions lamentably threaten to worsen the already troubling exodus from the teaching profession. “We’ve never seen this many people talk openly about leaving the profession,” Royers said.

And yet, the mission of our teachers could not be more vital for our society. One would be hard pressed to name any other profession whose work affects our nation’s future more than that being done right now by America’s educators. Addressing these multiple challenges, then, stands as a pre-eminent obligation for our schools and for our society.

The first step, a crucial one, is to encourage direct input from front-line staff. These educators and other staff members are by far the most knowledgeable about the range of real-world problems that must be addressed. Direction from these professionals can provide all-important guidance on how best to move ahead effectively. Teachers with Omaha Public Schools turned out in large numbers at an OPS board meeting last week to vent their frustration and call for action.

OPS points to steps it’s taking: Additional initiatives for wellness and employee retention. Adjustment of the school calendar to provide additional non-student days. Supporting paraprofessionals who wish to become educators. A concierge team of volunteers to provide support for staff. Building high school education academies to develop a long-term talent pipeline before students turn 18.

Omaha-area school districts have said they intend to use much of their federal pandemic relief money — OPS alone is receiving more than $300 million — to address students’ learning loss from COVID disruption since early 2020. A central part of that response must be to provide teachers with extra help in the classroom — such direct help can go far in reducing the pressure.

Since schools are now de facto social service agencies in needing to help students and families cope with emotional and mental health needs, other institutions — government agencies, nonprofits — must step forward with strategies to help meet families’ needs. School systems currently are left overburdened by needing to address such a wide array of societal challenges.

School leaders from across Nebraska took a positive step this fall by coming together in a statewide summit to brainstorm on strategies to address this crisis. One of the worthwhile approaches mentioned is to examine the certification process to remove any needless complications when an educator moves to Nebraska and would like to enter the classroom. Nebraska has already been pursuing this practical approach in regard to other professions, aiming to remove needless roadblocks to expanding our workforce.

We must not let this crisis overwhelm our schools. Relieving the pressures on Nebraska educators will show needed respect to these dedicated professionals. Above all, this help will bolster Nebraska’s ability to build a stronger future for students and communities.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Nov. 18, 2021.

Editorial, 11/19: State college discrimination policy dispute sends wrong message

For as much as is made about Nebraska’s need to attract and retain workers, too many public officials and prominent groups in the state seem unwilling to accommodate the more diverse generation that can help turn the tide on these trends.

At their Nov. 11 meeting in Wayne, trustees for the Nebraska State College System adopted policies that further clarified the kinds of discrimination prohibited at its member institutions and asked employees to respect the chosen name and gender identity of staff at its campuses in Peru, Wayne and Chadron.

The former was in response to a change in state law; the latter brings Nebraska’s state colleges in line with its public universities, not to federal law, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that included gender identity as a protected class nationwide.

Neither of these things should be controversial on their own, save for the fact everything is now controversial to certain segments of society. However, citing the First Amendment as a reason for opposition doesn’t make sense here.

One argument being made against the trustees’ vote is that extending protections to include gender identity somehow infringes upon free-speech rights of students and staff.

But our first freedom cuts both ways, making the argument paradoxical, at best.

Opponents of the measure said nothing about the rights to free expression also guaranteed to people in the newly protected classes, including those who may have a gender identity that doesn’t line up with their biological sex. And their rights matter, too.

Such actions are particularly disheartening in a state whose slogan is “Equality before the law” and at institutions of higher learning designed to make advanced education more accessible to Nebraskans -- and that motto doesn’t apply more to some Nebraskans and less to others.

If Nebraska faces this much opposition to reach even the constitutionally guaranteed minimum standards of treatment, there is little hope for the state as it aims to tackle its biggest long-term challenges to growth and shaking off misconceptions.

Workforce development, recruiting of college-educated employees, continuing the state’s population growth -- all of these collide on Nebraska’s college campuses. Yet, too many leaders are focused on ostracizing people from different backgrounds.

The status quo has gotten us to where we are today -- more jobs than people to fill them, all at a time where a wave of retirements among baby boomers threatens to leave the state shorthanded in many key industries.

Perhaps that’s what’s so frustrating about the opposition to the newly adopted policies at Nebraska state colleges, necessity of the changes to comply with the law aside: It’s embarrassingly shortsighted.

The right approach to help grow Nebraska is to be welcoming and accommodating to all, rather than telling certain segments of the population that Nebraska isn’t for them.

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North Platte Telegraph. Nov. 21, 2021.

Editorial: State aid plan aims to help every school

Being between Unicameral sessions as we are, it’s too early for anyone to get excited about yet another proposal to bring state school aid up and local property taxes down.

State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, who unveiled the newest plan Thursday, undoubtedly knows the obstacles ahead.

But we do see one definitive victory in Walz’s plan for those of us literally or figuratively west of Lincoln’s O Street:

It recognizes that Nebraska indeed is a 500-mile state, not a 50-mile one.

That may be because Walz and the plan’s authors, Columbus school Superintendent Troy Loeffelholz and finance director Chip Kay, live far enough outside Omaha and Lincoln to see both urban and rural views.

West central Nebraskans might remember Kay as a highly successful Ogallala football coach. He then became a small-school superintendent at Shelby-Rising City.

Kay surely gets a truth we’ve long known: You can’t deliver both significant property tax relief and high-quality K-12 education with an aid formula that largely ignores Nebraska’s agricultural vastness.

Larger districts, including North Platte, have more and more diverse students to teach. The current aid formula recognizes that, and it still would under the Columbus-Walz plan.

But 83% of Nebraska’s billion-dollar school-aid pool goes mainly to the largest schools, most of them in the metro east.

The message to the rest has been clear: Good luck. You’re on your own.

You’ll find more on nptelegraph.com on how the Columbus-Walz plan would pursue the long-term property tax relief intended by 1990’s Legislative Bill 1059.

But it would do two critical things to ensure smaller schools get more than a small sip from the state-aid spigot:

— Like a defeated 2019-20 plan from North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, this plan would guarantee a basic amount of per-student aid. LB 1059 abolished such “foundation aid.”

— It would again try to keep LB 1059’s abandoned promise to send every school 20% of what its patrons pay in state income taxes.

Whenever crop and cattle prices fell after 1990 — and state revenues with them — lawmakers cut into that income-tax rebate. It’s now a mere 2.23%.

That’s all the aid most small schools get, unless they can attract more students than they lose to nearby districts.

Then they get “net option funding,” which the Columbus-Walz plan would abolish.

North Platte has lost several hundred students who live here that way. Note well that this proposal would not affect their parents’ ability to choose a different school.

But let’s face it: Rural schools shouldn’t have to turn that option into a strategy to get more money for their basic mission.

They wouldn’t need to under this plan. All but two of west central Nebraska’s 40 districts, and all but six of 244 statewide districts (all of them small), would get more state aid — usually dramatically more. (Those six would get a little extra help for a brief time under the plan.)

The more state aid schools get, the less they need from property owners. Period.

North Platte’s 2021-22 school tax request would have been one-third lower if this plan were already in effect. That’s real tax relief.

But, again, it’s too early to get excited.

— Nebraska’s school administrators and school boards seem to like this plan. What of the large metro districts? When they say “no,” metro senators usually listen.

— We have a governor whose opposition to changing anything with taxes helped kill Groene’s plan. Remember Gov. Pete Ricketts’ photo ops at grocery stores against subjecting pop and candy to sales taxes?

— Most important: Nebraska’s farm and ranch economy will keep bouncing up and down. That’s why LB 1059 didn’t work as planned.

As we noted on Halloween, Nebraska is spending more on its two existing state property tax credits ($861 million) than it did on the entire state budget 35 years ago.

That would more than cover the Columbus-Walz plan. For now. But would it last when (not if) the economy falters again?

That has to be left to senators, the plan’s authors say. They’re trying to propose a formula all schools can live with, even in the inevitable lean years.

By ensuring that the state lends more than token help to all Nebraska’s schools — large, small, eastern or western — they might just accomplish that much. And that’s a lot.

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Omaha World-Herald. Nov. 18, 2021.

Editorial: Nebraska’s strong bumblebee numbers point to state’s broader habitat successes

The humble American bumblebee offers an important lesson for Nebraska about sound environmental management.

Nebraska, The World-Herald’s Marjie Ducey reports, is proving a far more hospitable home for the bee than many other states. In eight states, the bumblebee has vanished entirely. The pollinator’s population has seen a decline of more than 50% in the Midwest and southwest regions of the country.

Nebraska’s bumblebee-friendly achievement points to broader successes in preserving our state’s natural habitat — an accomplishment all the more notable given that the vast majority of Nebraska land is in private hands and that modern farming culture has long tended toward border-to-border crop cultivation.

Nebraska still faces major challenges in preserving natural habitat, no question, but the state’s progress on this score is worth understanding and using as a model for further gains. Consider the range of notable examples across the state.

In the 1980s, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission began releasing river otters at seven locations along the state’s rivers to revive the population. The result? “It’s been an amazing success story,” said Melissa Panella, the agency’s wildlife diversity program manager.

Similar efforts by a range of Nebraska groups and federal agencies have boosted wildlife habitat along the Platte River and restored the number of bighorn sheep and bald eagles, among other animals, to healthy levels.

South-central Nebraska and Custer County offer major successes in wetlands preservation. In the Nebraska Panhandle, a local group called Platte River Basin Environments has shown great energy and vision in acquiring and preserving more than 30,000 acres for hunting, fishing and hiking, free of charge. The group’s work has boosted bighorn sheep numbers and preserved land along the North Platte River for wildlife including ducks and pheasants.

Habitat along the central Platte River basin provides vital territory for Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese as they stop each year along their extraordinary north-south migratory journey. So many partner organizations contribute to habitat preservation in the basin that it’s impossible to have a full listing here. But a sampling includes the Crane Trust, Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Game and Parks, the University of Nebraska, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Central Platte Natural Resources District.

The state governments of Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming contribute to the Platte River efforts through their decades-old partnership to protected endangered species along the Platte, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Nebraska Environmental Trust has stood tall for more than three decades in providing financial support for well-designed conservation programs across the state. One tool in those efforts are voluntary conservation easements, used for generations by Nebraskans.

Nebraskans can be proud of our state’s success in helping the American bumblebee, progress that is just one part of a broader story of sound Nebraska environmental cooperation and achievement.

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