Repeal of learning community common levy proposed

The Education Committee heard testimony Feb. 22 on a bill that would eliminate the Omaha learning community’s common levy and provide aid to districts that create a plan to address achievement barriers.

LB1067, introduced by Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, would repeal the 95-cent common levy and 2-cent special building fund levy for the 11 school districts in Douglas and Sarpy counties that make up the learning community. Member districts instead would have an individual levy.

Revenue from the common levy currently is allocated proportionally among the member districts and state aid for the districts is calculated collectively. Repealing the common levy would increase the amount of state aid to the learning community by an estimated $5.4 million beginning in fiscal year 2017-2018. Districts that lose funding under the new system would receive state transition aid, which would be phased in over three years beginning in FY2017-18.

Sullivan, who made LB1067 her priority bill this session, said the original intent of the common levy was to pool resources to benefit all learning community member districts and address high levels of student poverty in inner-city districts. Instead it has become a wedge that threatens the learning community’s success, she said.

“I think [the bill] retains all that’s good about the learning community and serves to change it in ways that will make it stronger and better,” Sullivan said.

The bill would require learning communities to create a plan to address achievement equity and barriers to achievement such as poverty, mobility and truancy. Districts would be eligible for additional state aid after the State Board of Education approves the plans. Multidistrict educational service units also could create achievement plans to qualify for the additional aid.

Learning community students who are enrolled outside their resident district under the current open enrollment plan would become option students. School districts still would be required to provide free transportation to students enrolled in the open enrollment program.

Kevin Riley, superintendent of Gretna Public Schools, testified in support of the bill. He said the community achievement plan, in which schools would receive additional aid equal to 5 percent of their poverty allowance, would be an effective way of increasing poverty aid to schools while increasing accountability. The common levy, once seen as the best way to generate resources for high-poverty schools, is not sustainable over the long term and has stifled the growth of some districts, he said.

“Although never intended to be, it’s turned into an exhausting diversion,” he said.

Brett Richards, superintendent of Springfield Platteview Community Schools, also supported the bill, saying that it represents a fair compromise among the 11 member districts. He said the common levy has been a “nightmare” for Sarpy County communities and schools and has cost the district more than $10 million in potential revenue since it was implemented in 2010.

The district’s revenue has decreased by 7 percent over the last six years, Richards added, while enrollment has increased by more than 12 percent.

“Our school districts deserve a chance to handle growth, update facilities with needed infrastructure and safety features and keep our academic programs competitive,” he said. “Poverty is a statewide issue and the cost of poverty should be shared across the state, not on the backs of smaller districts in the learning community and Sarpy County taxpayers in the name of stability.”

Connie Knoche, chief financial officer for Omaha Public Schools (OPS), testified against the bill. She said OPS shoulders most of the financial burden for teaching the learning community’s poor students and English language learners.

More than 70 percent of OPS students live in poverty, the district’s refugee student population has increased by 110 percent between 2009 and 2014 and the district’s number of English language learners increased by almost 400 percent between 2000 and 2014, she said. The community achievement plan would not be an effective way to increase poverty aid, Knoche added.

“There is little or no incentive for most of the school districts in the learning community to have a viable community achievement plan because most of them don’t have the poverty that is experienced in Omaha Public Schools,” she said.

Mark Adler, superintendent for Ralston Public Schools, also spoke against the bill, saying that it would erode the learning community’s long-term financial commitment to helping students in poverty. Adler said the poverty level in Ralston’s student population has grown 24 percent in the last decade. The district already has reached its maximum levy and could not increase property taxes to make up for a loss in state aid, he said.

“If LB1067 were to pass, the long-term outlook for any students living in poverty is extremely concerning,” he said. “Removing the common levy in a district where average valuation growth over the last five years is 1 percent will eliminate any level of stability that once existed.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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