Lawmakers seek fix for boundaries

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Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014 12:00 am

Time for a pop quiz. We’ll wait as you get your pencils ready.

Question #1: How far south do the Millard Public Schools stretch into Sarpy County?

A. Harrison Street, it’s the county line.

B. Giles Road.

C. Cornhusker Road.

D. Highway 370.

Question #2: How far north do the Gretna Public Schools stretch into Douglas County?

A. Harrison Street, it’s the county line.

B. Q Street.

C. F Street.

D. West Center Road.

Phew, OK. If you followed the standard test-taking strategy of picking ‘C’ (or happen to be a Gretna Public Schools boundary guru), congratulations — you were spot on!

Gretna stretches as far north as F Street in the vicinity of 284th Street in extreme southwest Douglas County, splitting a boundary line with Douglas County West Community Schools, which serve Valley and Wahoo.

Conversely, Millard educates children who live in much of the Chalco region, including those who live along the northern half of Wehrspann Lake — pushing its southern boundary to Cornhusker Road, surrounded at that point by the Papillion-La Vista, Springfield Platteview and Gretna school districts.

Until the last few years, these boundaries were subject to change as communities grew and school districts tussled for access to increased property valuation — meaning more students and more tax dollars to support them.

Last week, the Gretna Breeze surveyed the history and impact of the school boundary freeze that the Nebraska Legislature instituted as part of the law that created the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

District boundaries in the metropolitan area are inexorably linked to the growth of the cities that share their name.

Here in Sarpy County, that primarily means concerns that two areas in the Springfield Platteview district might see growth stymied not because of the quality of Springfield Platteview schools but because homeowners expect to live in the district that matches the name of their city of residence.

The LaPlatte area south of Bellevue is set to experience a boom sometime in the near future because of the Highway 34 bridge that will connect Platteview Road with access to Interstate 29 in western Iowa. The area southwest of 84th Street and Schram Road has remained undeveloped despite growth in the nearby Shadow Lake neighborhood in part because the land falls outside the Papillion-La Vista School District.

Essentially, what might typically be thought of as an issue impacting mainly school districts is actually a tripartite scenario impacting schools, private developers and municipal governments.

Those interests are not necessarily in agreement, either. Neither Bellevue nor Papillion-La Vista schools are keen to see much more growth, Bellevue because it does not have money to build new schools and Papillion-La Vista because it already has capacity issues from growth inside its district that are behind plans to build new buildings following a bond issue.

Developers, like any other business, want to see their investments pay dividends, which means their land not sitting idle while other nearby areas continue to fill in with new houses, new retail establishments and dollars flowing into someone else’s pocket.

The Education Committee held a public hearing earlier this month that brought a mix of school and municipal officials discussing the need to do something about the boundary freeze. That testimony built off input given to the Urban Affairs Committee in a joint hearing with the Education Committee last November at the La Vista Public Library – although ironically Papillion-La Vista was the only Sarpy County school district that remained neutral and didn’t make remarks at that hearing.

The Legislature is currently weighing four proposals that impact the Learning Community, but only one of those legislative bills addresses the boundary issue.

Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford introduced LB 1101 to help Bellevue and Papillion-La Vista pry away undeveloped agricultural land from Springfield Platteview, she said.

The bill would allow school districts serving cities of the first class to take other districts to court if negotiations to acquire land within the city’s zoning jurisdiction were not being conducted in good faith.

Bellevue, Papillion and La Vista are cities of the first class because they have populations in excess of 5,000, while Springfield is a city of the second class with a population of only 1,529, according to the 2010 Census, and Gretna has not officially recorded a population in excess of 5,000 although it likely could.

That means, though, that if LB 1101 is adopted, only Bellevue and Papillion-La Vista would have the authority under Crawford’s proposal to ask a judge to intervene in certain boundary disputes for undeveloped farmland.

Springfield Platteview has made it clear that incentives in the way property tax and state aid are awarded through the Learning Community’s funding formula mean it would stand to lose from negotiating a shrinking of its district boundaries, which is permitted under the boundary freeze if both sides reach a mutual agreement. That could set up a challenge that the district was negotiating in “good faith” to reach a deal, since any deal would likely not be in Springfield Platteview’s strategic interest.

If the district didn’t lose out on more than $4.6 million, by its own calculation, in the past four years because of the Learning Community, that might be a different story, Superintendent Brett Richards said. As it stands, though, the district doesn’t control most of its property tax levy like districts outside the metropolitan area.

If it did, Richards said his district would consider giving up land to Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue to focus on its core around Springfield proper.

“If we had our own levy, we could make those decisions with the community and talk about what kind of district we want to be,” he said.

That’s something Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue would consider in order to be good neighbors to their cities, the superintendents of those districts said.

Given that, Crawford’s bill would not be all bad news for Springfield.

LB 1101 would eliminate the pooling and redistribution of property tax dollars by the 11 districts in the Learning Community. The common levy, as it is called, takes 95 cents of each district’s $1.05 in levy authority and divvies it up based on student enrollment, grade levels and a number of other factors.

The common levy is designed to divert property taxes from valuation-heavy districts to valuation-light districts, while also treating the entire Learning Community as one big school district for the purpose of state aid.

Springfield Platteview is a perennial loser in the common levy redistribution but, as the Bellevue Leader outlined in a series of articles last year, that doesn’t necessarily benefit the school districts it targets, like Omaha Public Schools, because stagnant and negative growth in some areas balances out increases elsewhere in the two-county area.

“When district’s valuations go up, we don’t see that money,” Richards said. “It goes in a pool that gets redistributed out.”

Another proposal, Papillion Sen. Jim Smith’s LB 865, would eliminate the common levy without the additional boundary provisions of Crawford’s bill.

Two other bills, both introduced by Education Committee Chairwoman Kate Sullivan, would make adjustments to the Learning Community without touching either the common levy or the boundary issue directly.

LB 1070 would place a limit on how much of Springfield Platteview’s property taxes would leave the district, as well as helping Douglas County West Community Schools, which also loses a lot of property tax dollars under the Learning Community system.

Richards told the Springfield Platteview school board earlier this month that there has been discussion of pulling Springfield Platteview and DC West out of the Learning Community but other districts don’t want to see that piecemeal approach.

“The reason we haven’t been able to get separated is we pay the lion’s share,” he said.

Sullivan’s other proposal, LB 1068, would change how state aid is calculated for school districts in the metropolitan area, which would have resulted in the districts dividing up an extra $35 million this year. The bill also would also have superintendents study several parts of the Learning Community: governance, common levy, boundaries, enrollment and focus schools and programs.

Gretna benefits from the frozen boundaries, Superintendent Kevin Riley said. But the compromise leading to the Learning Community included the sharing of resources in addition to frozen boundaries, and Gretna loses money to Douglas County as part of that agreement.

Riley said Gretna supports LB 1068 because it has the best chance of success.

“The 11 school districts probably have the best chance of coming up with a viable solution,” he said. “If it just keeps going from one side to the other, we are always going to be looking every year to try to pass partial solutions in the Legislature.”

He said that’s where lawmakers are at right now — offering partial solutions.

Riley was joined by Bellevue Superintendent Frank Harwood and Papillion-La Vista Superintendent Andy Rilki in saying that the superintendents, particularly in Sarpy County, have strong working relationships. They agree that the districts could all work together collaboratively.

Solutions exist outside the metropolitan area, with the state’s other districts able to resolve boundary disputes. But the challenges locally were created by Omaha’s decision to not annex Ralston, Millard, Elkhorn and Westside when the city’s growth brought city limits to the west.

“Only those who know and have dealt with (these issues) over the years can resolve them,” Riley said.

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