Elimination of learning community common levy clears second round

Senators advanced a bill April 6 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 and would retain a 2-cent levy used for early childhood education. As amended, the bill would increase the amount of state aid for school districts with a high percentage of students in poverty and phase in transition aid over three years.

Under the bill, learning communities would 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.

Sullivan introduced an amendment on select file, adopted 40-1, that would increase the amount of community achievement plan aid from $5.4 million to $5.7 million, which she said would go predominantly to Omaha Public Schools. Approximately $1.1 million in transition aid would be funded using lottery dollars instead of general funds, Sullivan said. The proposal would cost approximately $13.4 million, down from the original bill’s estimated cost of $17.3 million to $20.7 million.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna supported the bill, saying that it succeeds in removing the common levy without endangering poverty aid for Omaha Public Schools.

“[The bill] abolishes the common levy of the learning community, it achieves additional funding for schools with extreme poverty and it creates an environment where we aren’t pitting school district against school district in the Douglas and Sarpy County area,” he said. “It may not be perfect, but it’s pretty darn good.”

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers opposed the bill. He said the common levy provides a predictable and sustainable way of funding the learning community’s programs and ensures that schools with large numbers of students in poverty receive enough aid.

“That common levy is the only means by which the goals and vision of the learning community have any chance of being carried out,” Chambers said.

Sen. Tanya Cook of Omaha also spoke against the bill. She said removing the common levy and replacing it with community achievement plan aid is not true to the learning community’s original purpose, which was to ensure that everyone in the Omaha metropolitan area had a stake in funding inner city schools with students in extreme poverty.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha introduced an amendment that would remove the community achievement plan requirement, which he said adds an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. It also would direct aid to both learning community districts and high-poverty districts across the state and allow the learning community to use its existing building fund levy to address poverty.

The amendment failed on a vote of 13-14.

Sullivan filed a motion to force a vote on the bill after four hours of debate. The motion succeeded 42-2 and the bill advanced to final reading on a 40-5 vote.

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