Elimination of learning community common levy advances

Senators advanced a bill March 30 that would end the Omaha learning community’s common levy and provide transition aid to member districts.

The Legislature created the learning community in 2007 to share resources among the students in the broader Omaha area to help address the achievement gap of children in the city center.

Introduced by Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, LB1067 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 2017-18. Districts that lose funding under the new system would receive state transition aid, which would be phased in over three years.

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.

Sullivan said the common levy has become a divisive component of the learning community that threatens its long-term success. She said the proposal, particularly its inclusion of a community achievement plan, would ensure that member districts continue to communicate and collaborate if the common levy is eliminated.

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.

The bill also would remove school board members from learning community coordinating councils and remove those councils from the reorganization process.

The original bill would have increased total state aid to school districts by an estimated $17.3 million to $20.7 million for FY2017-18.

Papillion Sen. Jim Smith spoke in support of eliminating the common levy, which he said causes some learning community districts to lose money every year and creates boundary disputes among districts. He said removing the common levy would help the learning community achieve its goal of cooperation among districts.

“The common levy is not achieving what it was intended to do,” he said. “We have some school districts that are suffering terribly.”

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist said he could not support the bill as introduced because it would not provide enough aid to Omaha Public Schools and Ralston Public Schools, which have high concentrations of students in poverty.

“You can’t get rid of the common levy in the learning community and still be true to the initial purpose of the learning community, which is not to leave your inner city schools behind,” he said.

Sullivan introduced an amendment, adopted 37-0, that she said was a compromise between senators who wanted to decrease the cost of the bill and those who believed the original bill did not include enough poverty aid for learning community districts.

She said the amendment would reduce the estimated cost of the bill to $13.5 million and increase the amount of state aid for school districts with a high percentage of students in poverty. It also would phase in transition aid over two years instead of three.

Senators voted 40-1 to advance the bill to select file.

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