Ralston school officials say their district has suffered under the shared tax system of the Learning Community, despite a report showing the district has received more revenue under that system than it would have under the prior tax system.
Ralston Superintendent Mark Adler wrote a letter to parents, students and community members criticizing The World-Herald for a Sept. 25 article about the report. The report described how the Learning Community's tax system affected 11 metro Omaha districts.
Adler's letter said the article was “incredibly inaccurate as it relates to the financial picture for Ralston Public Schools.”
Adler acknowledged afterward in an interview that the article was accurate.
However, Adler said, it didn't tell the whole story about his district's financial picture.
He also asserted in the letter that the district's financial troubles stem primarily from the common property tax levy, a key feature of the shared tax system.
That assertion, however, is not supported by the data in the report, which was produced by the Learning Community's financial officer and accounting firm.
The report analyzed how much property tax revenue and state aid each district received under the shared tax system. It compared those amounts with how each district would have fared without the Learning Community.
Lawmakers created the Learning Community in 2007 to shift revenue among the member districts in Douglas, Sarpy and part of Washington Counties. The purpose was to assist districts that were seen as lacking property values yet having to educate greater numbers of students in poverty.
The report found that Ralston had gained nearly $1.7 million over the past four years when compared with revenue projections under the former system.
Adler wrote that the common levy “has been the single most negative factor impacting our budget shortfall over the last four years.”
The World-Herald — which stands by the accuracy of the initial story — contacted Adler to ask about his characterization of the article as inaccurate.
“The information in your story, although it's accurate, it doesn't tell the story that I need to have told, in the fact that we still have less dollars coming in the door than we had the previous year,” Adler said in an interview.
He said he wrote the letter out of concern that Ralston residents would conclude the district was flush with money, when the opposite is true.
Ralston has seen a drop in combined property taxes and state aid each of the past three years. Those revenue sources have dropped from a combined $23.02 million in 2010-11 to $20.41 million this year.
The revenue decline put a financial squeeze on the district, leading to employee layoffs, a partial pay freeze and other cost-cutting, Adler said.
The report does not support Adler's assertion the Learning Community is the primary cause of Ralston's financial troubles. It indicates the district would have lost revenue each of the past three years regardless of whether the Learning Community existed.
The report, in fact, indicates Ralston would have lost almost $700,000 more under the old system than it has under the current system.
What's true for Ralston, however, is that for a district with rising poverty, the shared tax system has not brought Adler the funds he feels it needs. Fifty-seven percent of Ralston students qualify for free or reduced lunch this year, up from 52 percent last year.
Similarly, Westside Community Schools have also fared better with the common levy than without it.
But the district also has seen decreasing revenue from state aid and property taxes under the Learning Community each of the past three years, according to the report.
The cause of Ralston's revenue decline is not clear. The district's enrollment, which is a factor in state aid, has fluctuated during the past four years, while enrollment has grown in districts such as Elkhorn and Gretna.
State records show that the number of students taken into account by the aid formula, a key factor in calculating state aid, declined four straight years in Ralston before rising slightly this year.
Nonetheless, Ralston school Board President Linda Richards maintained last week that the common levy system makes Ralston “incredible losers.”
Richards said she's not concerned with how the district would have fared had lawmakers never created the Learning Community, calling that “theoretical.”
“I think the verdict's still out on whether or not we would benefit under it or we wouldn't,” Richards said.