Future of Lincoln February 6, 2005, page 6B Discussing Lincoln's future: schools and growth By the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center Editor's note: This summary of public schools and growth issues for Lincoln will be given to people selected to take part in a Feb. 24 forum on the future of Lincoln. A city's development is closely connected to the quality of life enjoyed by its residents. Quality of life can include many things: access to healthcare, efficient wastewater treatment, safety, the availability of parks, and recreation and shopping opportunities for all tastes. Public education is a crucial component. What is the connection between Lincoln's schools and economic development? In the immediate sense, as Lincoln grows, it needs more public schools. Although its public schools are among the nation's best, the city's growth has placed a strain on the school system. Overcrowded schools can affect a city's development if it leads to lower student performance; after all, the quality of schools is one of the prime attractions for people and businesses considering moving to a community. There are many other links between schools, development, and a city's life. Strong elementary and secondary public schools create social opportunities, decrease crime, and can even raise property values of surrounding neighborhoods. In the long term, a good public school system plays a major role in producing an educated workforce. Education can increase earnings, worker productivity, and employment stability. A strong public school system is essential to a city's economic vitality. Students, Achievement, and Conditions The city's first new public high schools in 35 years, Lincoln Southwest and Lincoln North Star, were immediately full when they opened in 2002 and 2003, respectively. When the 2004-2005 school year started, the district-wide kindergarten class was the biggest ever. Class sizes now are as large as 23 students, which some teachers say makes it tough for them to give kids individual attention. Still, Lincoln's public schools have managed to boost student achievement over the last five years. The Metropolitan Achievement Test is a standardized test that measures achievement in reading and math for 3rd and 7th-graders across the country. In 3rd-grade reading, Lincoln students were at the 76th percentile in 2004, having risen eight points since the 1999 score of 68. During the same period, 3rd-grade math scores rose to 83, from 77. Seventh-grade reading scores rose to 70, from 67, and math scores rose to 71, from 68. According to a 2003 report from Florida-based consulting firm MGT of America, Lincoln's school facilities are in unusually good shape. MGT used a 100-point scale to assess four components of each school: physical condition (structural, electrical-mechanical and safety components), educational suitability (how well the facility supports the educational program it houses), site condition (deferred maintenance in the site systems, such as fences, parking lots and site lighting), and technology readiness (existence of the required infrastructure to support information technology and associated equipment). The average combined scores were 80 for elementary schools, 84 for middle schools, and 79 for high schools. MGT concluded that these high scores were rare, and reflected Lincoln's commitment to its public school system. However, many have concluded that some of Lincoln's schools need major renovation. Southeast High School and Northeast High School need immediate extensive refurbishment, according to a Lincoln Chamber of Commerce report, at an LPS-estimated $17 million cost. Southeast, for example, still lacks air conditioning, and has 10 portable classrooms on its front lawn that were left there after a tax challenge halted a planned renovation project. Financing Lincoln's Schools Lincoln's growing student population may pose a dilemma for school administrators and property taxpayers. A $90 million bond for the high schools passed in 1999 by a 52.5% to 47.5% margin, but Lincoln Public Schools failed twice in the next two years to secure additional funding through a levy-limit override election. Some property taxpayers, especially those on fixed incomes, do not like to see their taxes rising every year because of normal year-to-year budget increases, and thus oppose further additions to their bills through bond issues and levy overrides. Although there is general agreement about the positive impact a strong public school system can have on Lincoln's future, the critical questions have thus become how the city will both pay for renovating its existing schools and build new ones.