LINCOLN — A bill to abolish the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties ran into a barrage of skeptical questions Tuesday from members of the Legislature's Education Committee.
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln said Legislative Bill 179 takes a “sledgehammer” to the four-year-old educational structure.
He accused the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, of wanting to destroy the Learning Community without offering any alternatives for addressing the student achievement gap.
But Kintner said he believes alternatives can be found by bringing together the best minds in the state.
“We don't need an extra layer of government,” he said. “We don't need to tax people in Sarpy (County) to pay for programs in Omaha Public Schools.”
In response to questions from Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis, Kintner said his biggest concern with the Learning Community has to do with money.
Kintner said his proposal would “return taxes to the rightful recipients” — local school districts where they are collected.
Under current law, the 11 districts within the Learning Community have a common property tax levy. Funds from state school aid and the common levy are redistributed among member districts with the goal of sharing resources equitably across the Omaha metropolitan area.
Money was on the minds of many backers of LB 179, including residents and superintendents from some Sarpy County school districts. Superintendents who testified for the bill included those from Papillion-La Vista, Douglas County West and South Sarpy County districts.
On the other side were Learning Community officials and people involved with its programs, who talked of programs now in operation or getting under way to boost student learning.
Dimas Briceno, an Omaha parent, said participating in classes at the Learning Community Center in South Omaha taught him about the value of education and ways to help his children learn and grow.
“The Learning Community Center, they changed my life,” he said. John Lindsay, a lobbyist for OPS, said the Learning Community is drawing national attention.
“It's a uniquely creative model showing great promise for the future of education,” he said.
Learning Community supporters also spoke out against a bill that would leave the entity in place but make major changes to it.
That measure, LB 585, introduced by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, would cut the governing council to six members, all appointed by school boards. The council now has 18 members, of whom 12 are elected directly.
The bill would eliminate the 1-cent tax levy allowed for elementary learning centers, extended learning, family supports and other programs aimed at helping students and families.
It also would redirect the Learning Community's 2-cent capital project levy into early-childhood education programs and cut back on transportation for students using open enrollment.
Smith said the changes would save taxpayer money and improve the Learning Community.
“This bill is not destructive,” he said. “It keeps (the Learning Community) in place and makes measured, constructive changes in it.”
Lorraine Chang, chairwoman of the Learning Community Council, said the proposal would damage promising programs and reduce public representation on the council.
“There's no need for the structural overhaul that LB 585 would represent,” she said.
The committee took no immediate action on either bill.
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