LINCOLN — Battles over Omaha-area school district boundaries and school funding spilled over into a lengthy hearing Tuesday in the Nebraska Legislature.
On one side, Sarpy County school officials, community leaders and developers argued for undoing key parts of the law that created the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
They called for eliminating the controversial common property tax levy and allowing some changes in district boundaries.
State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion told the Education Committee that the goal is not to get rid of the Learning Community itself.
“There's more to the Learning Community than the common levy,” he said.
On the other side, Mark Evans, superintendent of the Omaha Public Schools, and Learning Community CEO Ted Stilwill warned against the proposed changes.
Evans said proposals to do away with the common levy represent a first step toward undoing the landmark legislation.
He predicted that the next target would be the boundary freeze and then the smaller, separate shared levy that supports such programs as elementary learning centers, extended learning and early childhood education.
“It would be re-creating the tension of the past,” Evans said. “You're opening up a can of worms that can lead in a whole different direction.”
In the middle, Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley asked that the 11 Learning Community superintendents be given a chance to come up with some answers to the lingering controversies.
“We'd like to have a shot at this because you hear the same things every year,” he said.
The opinions heard Tuesday echoed the turmoil over school boundaries and funding that pitted OPS against other area school districts and led to the creation of the Learning Community.
Under the 2007 law, the 11 school districts of Douglas and Sarpy Counties share a common property tax levy.
Funds from state school aid and the common levy are redistributed among member districts, with the goals of sharing resources equitably across the Omaha metropolitan area and raising the academic achievement of disadvantaged youths.
The law also froze district boundaries, allowing changes only with agreement by the affected districts and approval of the Learning Community Coordinating Council.
Efforts to change — or eliminate — the law began as soon as it was passed. Five bills affecting the Learning Community were introduced this year.
Smith's Legislative Bill 865 is the latest effort by a Sarpy County lawmaker to get rid of the common levy. The levy has been a frequent target because it forces taxpayers in some Sarpy County school districts to pay more taxes.
This year marks the first effort to loosen the boundary freeze.
In LB 1101, Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue proposed a method for having courts resolve boundary disputes if the districts cannot agree. The provisions would apply only to districts in midsize cities, not to those in Omaha.
Her proposal also would eliminate the common levy. She argued that the two issues should be addressed together.
Papillion Mayor David Black said development of land along the southern edge of his city has been stymied because it lies in the Springfield Platteview district.
Potential homebuyers are not interested in the land because they want to send their children to the nearby Papillion-La Vista schools, rather than the more distant Springfield buildings, Black said.
Bellevue officials said they face the same problem.
Springfield Superintendent Brett Richard said he could live with losing tracts of land to the Papillion and Bellevue districts if the common levy disappeared.
“It wouldn't hurt us as much as the common levy is hurting us now,” he said.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, committee chairwoman, introduced a measure backed by the Learning Community superintendents and the coordinating council.
The bill, LB 1068, would funnel more school aid to the Learning Community districts by changing how aid is calculated for them.
The change would have meant another $3.5 million going to the Learning Community this year.
The bill also would give the 11 superintendents a more active role. Instead of being strictly advisory, they would be directed to make recommendations about governance, the common levy, district boundaries, open enrollment and programs.
Another Sullivan proposal, LB 1070, would limit the property tax revenue leaving Douglas County West and Springfield Platteview under the common levy.