A school border fight is bubbling up again in metro Omaha as districts jockey to take advantage of the awakening economy.
The dispute is in Sarpy County, where the Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue districts bump up against Springfield Platteview.
When lawmakers passed the 2007 Learning Community law, they froze school district boundaries in 11 metro-area districts, preventing them from gobbling up their neighbors.
To change a boundary, both districts must agree. The law ended contentious boundary fights, including the Omaha Public Schools' attempt to take over parts of the Millard, Ralston and Elkhorn districts.
Before the freeze, Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue were gradually gnawing away chunks of Springfield Platteview under a law that allowed annexed or platted ground to convert to the school district of the annexing or platting city.
Now city officials from Papillion and Bellevue and real estate developers contend that the frozen boundaries put a chill on real estate development at a time when the economy is showing signs of life again.
Springfield Platteview Superintendent Brett Richards, however, said thawing the boundaries could open “Pandora's box.”
The city officials say developers would rather build in the suburban Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue districts, but with boundaries frozen there's no way for districts to expand to accommodate them.
Denny Van Moorleghem, vice president of Regency Homes, said buyers want homes in the Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue districts, “but there's no place to build new housing areas, because the developers can't go any farther to the south.”
Homebuyers aren't concerned about the quality of education in Springfield Platteview, Van Moorleghem said.
“The factor is that it's 12 or 13 miles from where they live to the nearest school,” he said. “They're not going to put their kids on a bus. And there's not a community environment. Kids want to play with other kids who are in their neighborhood.”
The result, city officials say, is that prime land in the Springfield Platteview district lies untouched by developers. A prime example, they say, sits about a mile south of the Shadow Lake shopping center, where rows of homes in the Shadow Lake housing development stop abruptly at the boundary with Springfield Platteview.
Lawmakers took testimony on the boundary situation earlier this month at the request of Sen. Jim Smith, whose district includes the cities of Papillion and La Vista.
Papillion Mayor David Black said that the frozen boundaries have already hurt financially and have the potential to bring economic activity in Sarpy County to “a grinding halt.”
Since boundaries were frozen, Black said, fewer than 100 new residential lots have been approved within Springfield Platteview. Over the same period, he said, more than 3,000 homes have been built, 1,000 homes are under construction and 2 million square feet of new commercial development has been built in the Papillion-La Vista district.
Black said lawmakers should take action because the state benefits from growth in Papillion. Papillion sales tax revenue for the state has more than tripled over the past 13 years, he said.
Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders said developers want to build on land in her city, but it lies within Springfield Platteview.
When people buy a house in a city, they want their kids to attend school there, Sanders said.
“I don't want to take away anything, or say anything bad about the Springfield school district, but it's 10 miles away, and we certainly can absorb them in the Bellevue school district,” she said.
Richards said thawing the boundaries would put his district at risk of losing land again. He said lawmakers should keep Springfield Platteview's boundaries frozen unless they are willing to do away with the Learning Community's common property tax levy.
Richards said that if lawmakers want to spur development, they should get rid of or change that levy, which cost his district about $1.8 million this year — $4.8 million over four years.
Richards said Springfield Platteview loses substantially more money to the common levy than it would giving up land to neighboring districts. For that reason, he said he's not entirely opposed to compromise on borders, as long as the common levy is junked.
“This is disheartening to our district stakeholders, who know that if we resided a few miles south in Cass County we'd have over $1.8 million more to serve our students this school year,” he said.
Voters in the Springfield Platteview school district rejected a $35.7 million bond issue Nov. 12.
Richards said keeping boundaries frozen is the only way to push up his district's enrollment, currently at 1,072 for pre-kindergarten through high school.
Richards said his district has achieved academic success. The district placed first among Sarpy County districts on 14 of the 20 state standardized tests, he said. The governor recognized Platteview High School as a top-five Class B school in reading, math and science.
He disputed the perception that his district's schools are too far from possible new development areas to serve them.
The district has an elementary school less than a mile from Werner Park baseball stadium, he said. Students have a 10-minute commute from the district's northern boundary to its junior high and high school, he said. Many students commute longer in Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue, he said.
Complicating the boundary issue is a ridge line that runs roughly east to west down the center of the county. Land on the north drains to the Papillion Creek. South of it, land drains to the Platte River. To spur development south of the ridge, in Springfield Platteview, will require building sewers and sewage treatment plants.
The ridge, according to Gretna Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Riley, is like “the Great Wall of China” for future development.
Papillion Planning Director Mark Stursma said a sewer plan drawn up 2007 to serve the area has sat on the shelf because the boundary issue has steered them to focus along the Nebraska Highway 370 corridor west of Papillion.
Real estate developer Jerry Torczon, who is president of Home Building Professionals of Greater Omaha, said home construction is rebounding after the oversupply that preceded the recession. In the next 10 years, land for development will be limited to the northwestern parts of the metro Omaha area and to Sarpy County, he said.
Torczon said he believes all school districts are solid, but market forces drive where homes are built.
“School district is probably the first question that consumers ask,” he said.
Comparing the Sarpy school districts
Serves Bellevue and Offutt Air Force Base. Greatest growth potential lies to the southwest in developing areas near Fairview Elementary School and Lewis and Clark Middle School.
28 square miles
Three middle schools
Two high schools
Highest-rated marching bands in the state; piloting an iPad program.
Serves the cities of Papillion and La Vista. District officials see growth potential west along the Nebraska Highway 370 corridor toward Werner Park.
36 square miles
Two junior highs
Two senior highs
Last year, voters OK'd a $59.6 million bond issue, the district's largest ever.
Created in 1958 when 13 rural Sarpy County school districts voted to merge. The district was called South Sarpy until a recent rebranding.
93 square miles
One junior high
One senior high
Provides iPads for use by seventh- through 12th-graders.