A state panel examining how Nebraska public schools are funded heard criticism of the Learning Community and a host of other concerns during a two-hour hearing Monday in Omaha that drew about 100 people.
Criticism of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties came from the Springfield Platteview, Douglas County West and Papillion-La Vista districts, which have been hurt by the common property tax levy.
“We’re not here to debate the common levy, but the Education Committee needs to understand that the Learning Community distribution formula, as currently written, simply is not working,” said Doug Lewis, assistant superintendent for business and finance at Papillion-La Vista.
The hearing was one in a series that the Legislature’s Education Committee is holding in communities across the state to gather ideas about potential changes in the school aid formula, including changes in the types of tax revenue used to pay for K-12 education.
The committee also heard appeals to preserve state funds that help advanced students in Millard Public Schools and to maintain stable support for Omaha Public Schools and their large percentage of poor and immigrant students.
Also, OPS officials’ call for more funding for early childhood education was supported by several speakers, including Samuel Meisels, director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. For children in poverty, early childhood education is “nothing less than a lifeline,” Meisels said.
Meanwhile, an official from the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation urged the committee to ease property taxes on farmers and ranchers and consider allowing local school districts to enact income taxes to offset property taxes.
A tax watchdog group called on the committee to encourage cost-sharing agreements among districts.
Doug Kagan, president of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, said lawmakers should reward districts that collaborate on building sports stadiums, libraries and gymnasiums. Districts should share costs, Kagan said, from administrative personnel to custodial services.
Revamping the school aid formula could become part of a bigger overhaul of taxes in the state. The Tax Modernization Committee is doing its own series of public hearings on potential tax changes.
Omaha school board President Justin Wayne told committee members that OPS needs financial stability so that, as it implements a strategic plan, it can predict where to put money to best serve students.
“A year ago I met many of you and asked you for support for shrinking the Omaha school board size,” he said. “Now I’m asking you to give us a solid foundation to operate over the next five years.”
He noted that nearly three of four OPS students qualify for subsidized school lunches. The district’s number of English-language learners exceeds the total enrollment of neighboring Bellevue Public Schools, and the refugee population has increased to 1,566, he said.
“Often they know little or no English,” he said. “Furthermore, many of these students have never been in a school setting. Many of these students have been uprooted from their families and homes.”
OPS Superintendent Mark Evans encouraged the committee to continue to provide funding for special education. Evans got a big laugh when he commented on the complexity of the Nebraska aid formula — the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act.
“I will tell you that school finance formulas, wherever you’re at, are pretty complex,” he said. “But I think TEEOSA may have taken the cake.”
A Millard official made a pitch to preserve parts of the formula that steer extra money to districts that keep kids in school longer and have teachers with advanced degrees.
Angelo Passarelli, Millard’s director of administrative affairs, said that of Millard’s 1,700 teachers, 68 percent have master’s degrees.
Millard’s extra instruction time and qualified teachers contribute to academic success, he said. Half of Millard’s graduates have attempted at least one Advanced Placement class, he said, and the district accounts for 32 percent of all AP tests taken in the state.
Other testimony, however, suggested that such allowances are not essential to the equalizing function of state aid.
The Learning Community, created by lawmakers in 2007, was the target of several speakers.
“Our enrollments are climbing, our student needs are becoming more complex, yet our revenue has remained largely flat, and we have relatively no ability to generate additional dollars,” said Lewis of the Papillion-La Vista district.
He noted that by treating the Learning Community as a single district for calculating state aid, lawmakers cut the allotment to the 11 metro Omaha districts by a total of $10.25 million over the past four years.
“This $10 million could have been used to maintain class sizes, maintain and improve facilities and provide instructional programs,” he said.
Brett Richards, superintendent of the Springfield Platteview Community Schools, said the common levy creates uncertainty about how to prepare for future student growth in growing Sarpy County.
Under the common levy system, Douglas County West loses 21.5 percent of potential revenue and Springfield Platteview loses 16.6 percent, Richards said.
State Sen. Tanya Cook said people forget about what she called the spirit behind the creation of the Learning Community. Because the 11 districts are linked together, she said, residents can’t “move away for our own comfort levels, in terms of of what our neighbors look like and what the children sitting next to our children look like.”
Richards said his district and board support the philosophies behind the Learning Community, “but I just think it has gotten to a point, and we all do in our district, that it wasn’t supposed to be this disproportionate amongst the 11 school districts.”
Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, told committee members that the way schools are funded is no longer equitable for the agricultural community.
Agricultural land valuations have risen 80 percent since 2008, he said. The owners of agricultural land represent 3 percent of the population but pay a quarter of the property taxes, he said.
Ag land owners are often outvoted when school boards consider bond issues or levy overrides, he said. Meanwhile, Nelson said, farmers and ranchers are shouldering the bulk of the funding for many districts. He said 114 of the state’s 249 school districts no longer receive any equalization aid.
“Our members have difficulty reconciling this arrangement,” he said.
Nelson said the federation supports allowing school districts to impose a local-option income tax as long as the revenue goes to offset property taxes.