Resolving school district boundary disputes key to Learning Community’s genesis, future

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Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 11:24 pm, Mon Jul 14, 2014.

As you drive onto gravel traveling west along Schram Road at 84th Street, don’t blame City Hall.

It’s not city officials’ fault, they say.

Blame the Learning Community.

Or, perhaps, if we’re trying to be fair, blame the Nebraska Legislature.

Or the school districts who threatened to annex their neighbors and began lengthy legal battles.

Or the invisible hand of the free market.

It’s all very complicated.

But one thing is certain: the intended and unintended consequences of the Legislature’s decision to marry the 11 metropolitan-area school districts to a new layer of government, the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, began not only to address the impact of socioeconomic inequality on student achievements but also, for better or worse, to halt disputes about where those school districts should draw their boundaries.

Take the intersection at 84th Street and Schram Road, for example. The City of Papillion receives regular complaints from residents that the road goes from being a beautiful, paved street lined with ornate street lamps to a gravel road back to a paved suburban thoroughfare again at 90th Street.

So why doesn’t the city pave the road already?

It’s too expensive. City spokesman Darren Carlson said roads are about the most expensive projects undertaken by local governments, so roads are generally built using cost-sharing partnerships.

Between 84th and 90th Street, the north side of Schram Road is developed but the south side is vacant. According to the developer, that’s because the land remains in the Springfield Platteview Community Schools — despite being a few blocks from the Papillion-La Vista School District’s Walnut Creek Elementary School and about 4.4 miles from Springfield Platteview’s Westmont Elementary School.

As state statute currently says, those school district boundaries are unlikely to change. The same law that created the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties also froze the boundaries of the 11 school districts that compose the coverage area of the public entity.

While the freeze does allow school districts to negotiate to modify their boundaries, the way the Learning Community redistributes property taxes and state aid creates an incentive for districts to keep growing and hang on to as much assessed valuation as possible.

Those incentives also compel districts to grow because to keep enrollment stable or to see it decline would mean receiving an increasingly smaller proportion of the pool of funds allocated through the Learning Community.

So Springfield Platteview offers iPads to help attract and retain students. Districts with available capacity try to attract students through open enrollment, trying to fill classroom seats to bring in the associated funding support.

“The reason that growth is so important is that under the current Learning Community funding formula, your funding is based on your percentage of need,” Bellevue Superintendent Frank Harwood said. “If you’re not growing with (districts like Elkhorn that are growing rapidly), then your percentage decreases.”

Meanwhile, school boundaries have remained intact, as state lawmakers intended. The districts that are experiencing significant growth see it from within their existing boundaries.

The boundary freeze was central to the groundbreaking legislation, ending a push by the Omaha and Bellevue school districts to enact “One City, One School District” in 2005.

On June 6, 2005, the Omaha Public Schools enacted a resolution attempting to take over land and 25 schools in Ralston, Millard and Elkhorn, citing an 1891 state law that Omaha school officials said allowed the district to take over portions of other districts within city limits.

Bellevue backed Omaha in its efforts, hoping to take over two Papillion-La Vista and five Omaha schools within Bellevue city limits.

That push by Bellevue in 2005 was motivated by the hope of bringing in extra property tax proceeds to supplement the eventual loss of highly-impacted federal Impact Aid, a program that provides block grants to school districts with a heavy federal government presence to make up for lost property tax revenue.

Bellevue eventually did lose the bulk of its Impact Aid funding, placing the district in the position of pondering a bond issue in the coming years to pay for facility improvements. Under Superintendent John Deegan, the champion of Impact Aid for the district and a conspirator with Omaha during the “One City” campaign, the Bellevue district carried no such bond debt.

That effort by Deegan saw the Papillion-La Vista district sue Bellevue Public Schools, one of several legal battles involving various school districts that took place in the mid-2000s.

Bellevue also went after a portion of South Sarpy, now Springfield Platteview, and ultimately purchased territory from the district.

“It’s been boundary wars for a long time,” Springfield Platteview Superintendent Brett Richards said.

Meanwhile, as the “One City” effort was under way, Ralston faced an existential threat. The district stood to lose four schools, enough to cripple its property tax base.

A bill that would have split Omaha Public Schools into three smaller districts was passed in 2006, laying the groundwork for what has since grown into the Learning Community.

That original bill prompted state and federal lawsuits, resulting in its replacement by Legislative Bill 641, which passed 33-14 and was signed by Gov. Dave Heineman on May 24, 2007.

LB 641 maintained the Omaha district while freezing existing boundaries and instituting a common property tax levy. That levy, as well as the redistribution of state aid funds, has become the focus of reform efforts as school districts argue they are receiving less but doing more.

“We were one of the first districts to agree to be in the Learning Community because of the elements protecting our boundaries,” Ralston Superintendent Mark Adler said. “Having our boundaries protected is an essential expectation for us regardless of legislation.”

Sarpy County’s delegation wasn’t part of the coalition that came together to pass LB 641: six of the seven lawmakers who represented a portion of the county voted against it.

Sarpy County’s representatives in the Legislature have continued to resist, or actively fight against, the Learning Community in the intervening years. State Sens. Jim Smith of Papillion and Sue Crawford of Bellevue, for example, both have bills pending this session that would eliminate the common property tax levy.

Crawford’s bill, LB 1101, would also allow school districts primarily serving cities of the first class to take other school districts to court if negotiations to acquire undeveloped agricultural land in the city’s zoning jurisdiction are not being conducted in good faith by both parties.

“This bill was crafted for Papillion and Bellevue and Springfield Platteview,” Crawford said. “It is only for ag land, and only for disputes in areas of new development. It wouldn’t open up all the old disputes.”

Essentially, that would allow Bellevue or Papillion-La Vista to take Springfield Platteview to court as part of efforts to acquire territory, but it would not allow Springfield Platteview to do so.

Gretna Public Schools would be unable to take immediate advantage of the proposed bill until its host city becomes a first-class city, which it will be able to do once its population officially hits 5,000.

“We send money into Douglas (County) pretty much every year,” Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley said. “But our boundaries are protected, so we benefit there.”

Riley said he prefers an approach by Sen. Kate Sullivan, the chair of the Education Committee, that would empower the superintendents of the Learning Community to make recommendations about boundaries, the common levy, district boundaries and other issues.

Smith’s bill, LB 865, would just do away with the common levy but would not address the boundary issue. His bill has the support of Papillion-La Vista and Springfield Platteview, and the bill received testimony from school and city leaders during a hearing held last week.

The common levy has been a target because it essentially follows a Robin Hood principle of diverting property taxes from valuation-heavy districts like Springfield Platteview and giving that to valuation-light districts like Omaha.

But that redistribution model doesn’t necessarily benefit those other districts, as the Papillion Times outlined in a series of articles last year, because stagnant growth in some areas balances out increases elsewhere in the metro.

Ultimately, the common levy benefits Omaha, Bellevue and Gretna while it reduces available funding for Papillion-La Vista, Springfield Platteview and Ralston. But Springfield Platteview and Ralston both receive more state aid than they otherwise would, while Bellevue and Omaha lose out on some of their state aid.

“We lose a lot of our dollars to other districts in the end,” Richards said. “The old law was better for us because we could keep our levy.”

As schools weigh their positions on various proposals to modify the Learning Community law, the importance of the boundary issue varies depending on the district’s situation.

In Bellevue, the loss of Impact Aid has the district looking at a bond issue in the next few years — not targeting areas for further growth, which is limited by existing building capacity.

“I’d be happy staying with 10,000 students,” Harwood said.

But the future Highway 34 bridge across the Missouri River to Platteview Road will make the LaPlatte area a potential magnet for development, raising concerns similar to those in Papillion that such growth could be stymied by the land being in Springfield Platteview — not because of the quality of the schools, but because those living in a city expect their children to attend the school district bearing the same name.

Harwood said the district is comfortable with its current boundaries but would look at the LaPlatte area to help encourage development if the City of Bellevue wanted.

“We want to be a good partner with the City of Bellevue,” Harwood said. “If that’s where the City of Bellevue grows to, then we’ll adapt.”

Many students in that area already attend Bellevue schools, and some opt to go to Plattsmouth, he said. Springfield Platteview already closed LaPlatte Elementary, which is currently being leased by Cornerstone Christian School.

Papillion-La Vista echoed Harwood’s point about wanting to encourage economic development, although the district’s school board has remained neutral in the discussions about how to reform the school boundary regulations.

Superintendent Andy Rikli of Papillion-La Vista said his district would be willing to discuss the 84th Street and Schram Road area with Springfield Platteview Community Schools, but he said the district is unlikely to initiate that conversation.

That’s because Papillion-La Vista has plenty of growth at the moment, which permits the district to take a “wait and see” approach on boundaries as it focuses on other priorities.

“By potentially throwing the boundaries wide open, that would be very difficult for us to accommodate potential additional growth,” Rikli said. “Given that we already have a large amount of growth occurring within our boundaries as it exists now, we’re going to be doing all we can do to keep up with the current growth, much less growth above and beyond that.”

Papillion-La Vista is working under the assumption its boundaries will remain the same over the next few years. But if the district were to expand, say in response to annexation, such growth would likely occur near the same areas where the district is erecting new buildings.

In Springfield Platteview, the school board is against the transfer of land to other districts because of the pressure from the common levy to continue growing.

“For us, it would be very foolish to give up any of those boundaries due to the fact that we need that growth to compete for revenues with growth as a school district,” Richards said.

Richards said he would look at shrinking the district if the common levy was not a factor, but it’s a nonstarter at present.

“There is more satisfaction in staying smaller as a district,” Richards said. “We have to compete in the game we’re given, but it’s not a game we want to be in.”

Gretna isn’t as concerned about the boundary issue, largely because the district controls the areas of the city that are growing and is too far from other growing municipalities.

Ralston, however, wants to make sure its boundaries are protected going forward to avoid a repeat of the “One City” battle. Beyond that, the district has been a proponent of reforming the Learning Community, including maintaining local control of its boundaries.

Beyond the school districts, developers want to see the boundary freeze begin to thaw, in particular for Springfield Platteview’s territory.

Papillion and Bellevue officials testified last week to the Education Committee about how the freeze is holding back potential growth.

That dynamic creates a unique problem in the state: how to manage the competing interests of municipalities, private parties and school districts. Outside the metropolitan area, fewer factors drive boundary decisions.

A protocol for settling boundary disputes already exists in state law for the rest of the state, Riley said. The metropolitan area is different, though, because Omaha Public Schools chose not to take the areas that became Millard, Elkhorn, Ralston and Westside as the City of Omaha developed toward the west.

“There are lots of issues here, lots of problems,” Riley said. “Only those who know and have dealt with them over the years can resolve them.”

In next week’s paper, the Papillion Times will look at possible solutions to the school boundary issue and how the climate among school leaders has evolved.

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