Monolithically as the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties has been described by its detractors, surely the place is enshrined in a marble hall with polished granted floors, all fronted by a massive colonnade.
Truth is, the entity responsible for helping to create equity and increase student achievement in its 11 member districts over two counties is housed on the third floor — of three — in an unspectacular office building off 72nd and Grover streets, sharing space with an escrow company and a psychologist’s office.
Ted Stilwill has headed up the Learning Community as CEO for two years after a career as a teacher and, later, as a federal and state educational administrator, serving from 1995 to 2004 as the director of the Iowa Department of Education.
There are five members on staff, and the CEO’s office overlooks a fallow grass field between two parking lots.
“It’s pretty small,” he said. “I think it’s another one of those misperceptions about the Learning Community.”
Approaching the five-year anniversary of its creation, the Learning Community has been working overtime in the last year to tell its story to a public that is still uncertain of the entity’s necessity, mandate and mission.
Most of that angst is fomented by the property tax bill residents living within the Learning Community receive.
Most of the misconceptions swirling around the educational conglomerate have to do with the firm belief by many that the Learning Community actually has something to do with setting the shared property tax levy — set at 95 cents per $100 of assessed valuation — which is then parceled out to help foster a more equitable funding situation for the 11 member districts.
In fact, as Stilwill said he’s been telling Learning Community residents and even some state senators unfamiliar with the body’s creation in the Nebraska Legislature in 2008, the common levy has been set by laws created by state lawmakers and not the Learning Community Coordinating Council.
For Stilwill, the funding issue is wrapped up in the legislative intent for the Learning Community and, he said, that’s also complicated by misunderstandings.
“By far the most frequent complaint about the Learning Community is the common levy,” he said. “A lot of people who want to get rid of the Learning Community really just want to get rid of the common levy, which neither I nor the Coordinating Council nor anyone at the Learning Community has anything to do with. It’s entirely a legislative issue. But because of the frustrations over it, people are failing to see some of the pretty good things the Learning Community has nevertheless been able to do.”
Papillion State Sen. Jim Smith, who has been a critic of the Learning Community, said the upcoming legislative session has the potential to become a forum on the future of the Learning Community.
He hopes the conglomerate’s legislative intent and the intent of the common levy are ripe for a discussion, along with the adjunct of the state’s larger school funding formula.
“When you consider first, the state funding mechanism, and second, the common levy, what you’re ending up with is a distribution of funds that not really accompanying what the intent is,” Smith said. “If you look at the larger picture, the common levy is actually working counter to the intention.”
Stilwill also noted that if the legislative intent of the common levy is to send more funding to school districts in need, it is not living up to its billing.
“If that was the intent, to help kids in poverty, then it’s not working,” Stilwill said. “It’s at least not working to the fullest extent it could be. And I’d agree that it’s something that needs to be examined in the legislature.”
With the Learning Community’s disbursements to community organizations which help foster some of the Learning Community’s academic goals, the hope is that there will be more recognition that there’s more at stake than simply pumping money to schools in need.
State Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue — whose district comprises parts of the Bellevue and Omaha public schools along with a slice of Springfield Platteview Community Schools — said she’s seen students and parents in her legislative district take advantage of Learning Community programs directed at enhancing the early childhood education experience, a program she touted as a major success for the conglomerate.
She said making sure those opportunities are available to all students in all districts who need them is paramount and allowing the Learning Community more leeway to direct funds into programs to stimulate student achievement may be necessary.
“I think there’s much confusion because people see their property tax bill and that 95 cents just going directly back to the schools without much direction from the Learning Community,” Crawford said. “The Learning Community has very little opportunity to direct that formula. The early childhood work is just 1 cent. That’s $10 or $20 per house, and the early childhood initiatives have great potential. We have gained traction in tackling the important issues of student achievement through early childhood education cooperation and innovation. We need to do more of it.”
State Sen. Bill Kintner, another Papillion legislator whose district spans several school district boundaries including Springfield Platteview, said he has been so far unimpressed by what the Learning Community has done and said students and parents in his district have felt themselves marginalized by programs the conglomerate runs.
“It seems to me that the Learning Community programs are geared toward OPS problems and then offered to other school districts,” Kintner said. “Springfield Platteview might benefit from some of the Learning Community programs, but the district would benefit a lot more if they were not part of Learning Community and could rely on the stability of the district’s own tax base to tailor programs for the needs of the students in their district.”
In Sarpy County, the common levy has been the subject of a lawsuit, settled in 2012 in the Learning Community’s favor, and still continues to divide superintendents, taxpayers and lawmakers. Those officials might agree with the fundamental mission of the Learning Community — to boost student achievement across economic lines — but they still question the common levy collection and disbursement.
Kintner said he’s still not convinced that the common levy is helping all 11 districts or that the common levy is fixable.
“The feedback I receive from my constituents in Springfield Platteview is that they object to dollars being moved around by the financing scheme of the Learning Community,” Kintner said in an email. “I anticipate the legislature having a conversation about the common levy and there very well could be some legislation to remove or modify it.”
For his part, Stilwill said he understands the consternation of the districts in Sarpy County, especially those which would not have been affected by the “One City, One School District” initiative, the 2005 challenge that set the Learning Community into motion.
“If I was in Sarpy County, I wouldn’t be very happy with the common levy, either,” he said. “Again, it’s not a problem I can solve.”
Smith said he’s currently in the process of drawing up legislation to begin the conversation in the session beginning in the new year. He’s met with Stilwill and members of the Learning Community Coordinating Council to talk about what the most pressing issues are and how lawmakers and the conglomerate can work together to more finely crystallize the Learning Community’s mandate and funding issues.
“The best opportunity for success is a cooperative approach,” Smith said. “I will continue to say in this next session that I don’t think there’s any interest in abolishing the Learning Community. What we need to do is do everything we can to ease the problems people see with the Learning Community.”