The Education Committee heard testimony Feb. 14 on two bills dealing with Educational Service Units (ESUs).
Under LB381, introduced by Norfolk Sen. Mike Flood at the request of Gov. Dave Heineman, ESUs could no longer serve school districts that are designated as a Class IV or Class V school and that consist of only one school district. The bill would eliminate ESUs 18 and 19, which serve the Lincoln and Omaha districts.
The bill also would discontinue Nebraska’s membership in the Education Commission of the States and remove the statutory requirement that the Nebraska Department of Education employ a student achievement coordinator.
Larry Bare, the governor’s chief of staff, testified in support of the bill, saying that ESUs are not needed for single member school districts.
ESUs were formed to help schools reduce costs and enhance student learning, Bare said, but these two districts already achieve cost savings and outperform other districts.
John Bonaiuto, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, testified in opposition to the bill, saying that ESUs provide vital functions for both small and large school districts.
Eliminating these ESUs would put more pressure on the districts’ general operating budget because they would have to pay for services that are currently being funded through the ESU, Bonaiuto said. School districts are already using limited funds to cover other critical areas, he added.
“ESUs have, in essence, been an integral part in delivering services that our [state] Department of Education has not been able to provide,” Bonaiuto said. “These things will have to be funded somehow.”
Mark Shepard, associate superintendent of business affairs for Lincoln Public Schools and interim administrator for ESU 18, also testified in opposition to the bill.
“You have to look beyond just the issue of a single district ESU,” Shepard said.
Eliminating ESU 18 will not only impact Lincoln Public Schools, he said. The ESU provides leadership in statewide programs that offer instructional materials, assessment of professional development, technology services and involvement with the virtual high school project, he said.
Liz Standish, administrator for Omaha Public Schools, also testified in opposition to the bill, saying that ESU 19 serves 49,000 students in the Omaha metro area as well as other students across the state. Last year OPS offered distance learning courses such as nuclear science, nuclear energy, honors calculus and other advanced mathematics courses, she said. Students in smaller districts might not have had the opportunity to take these courses without access to the ESU’s distance education program, she added.
About $5 million in services would be eliminated by LB381, Standish said.
LB446, introduced by York Sen. Greg Adams, was introduced as an alternative to LB381 and would allow educational service units to consist of single school districts. The bill would require ESUs serving only one district to participate in statewide projects that are managed by the ESU Coordinating Council.
“LB446 is an attempt to find, what I think, is a better way to deal with this issue,” Adams said.
“I want Omaha and Lincoln, the two biggest school districts in the state, to be statewide players,” he said. “School districts of that size have something to offer the whole state.”
The committee took no immediate action on either bill.