Invisible boundary lines may soon thaw

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

Our story begins in downtown Omaha on June 6, 2005, when the Omaha school board challenged the established natural order by passing a resolution claiming to have the right, thanks to a century-old state statute, to take over territory and 25 schools in Ralston, Millard and Elkhorn.

Blumfield, Meadows, Mockingbird and Karen Western elementary schools found themselves the target of an attempted raid of suburban schools in the name of unifying the City of Omaha under the control of one school district.

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

A battle royale ensued, with legal challenges, public relations campaigns and a defiant resolution by the Ralston Board of Education to do anything in the district’s power to oppose Omaha’s “One City, One School District” effort.

The initial solution that came along in the Nebraska Legislature would have split Omaha Public Schools into three smaller districts instead of unifying the city’s schools under its banner. That was the initial formulation to bring together 11 metropolitan-area school districts to form a joint entity to encourage, or if necessary compel, cooperation.

That original bill prompted state and federal lawsuits, and lawmakers sought to make a course correction before the law went into effect.

The result was Legislative Bill 641, which passed 33-14 (including a yea from State Sen. Steve Lathrop, who represents Ralston). It was signed by Gov. Dave Heineman on May 24, 2007.

The Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties had been born.

And that existential threat to Ralston put local school officials at the front of the line to sign up for the new public entity.

“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.”

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.

In the years since the Learning Community’s creation, schol 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, spelling the end of the “One City, One School District” campaign.

The consequences beyond that, both intended and unintended, have been numerous if not immediately obvious.

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

The city points the finger at the Learning Community, or perhaps moreso the lawmakers who created LB 641, for why the road cannot be paved. To afford the pavement, the city would need the help of developers to the north and south of Schram Road — it’s too expensive for the city to use tax dollars for the whole project.

But as development has come to the Shadow Lake area, 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 nearest Papillion-La Vista school and about 4.4 miles from Westmont Elementary School, the nearest Springfield Platteview building.

Those school district boundaries are unlikely to change anytime soon. While the school boundary 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.”

Some members of the Legislature are working to change that situation, while also making reforms to other aspects of the Learning Community — or lobbying to dissolve it outright.

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 newly 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.

Adler said Crawford’s bill wouldn’t have much impact on Ralston — except insofar as it eliminates the common levy.

Gretna Superintendent Kevin 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,” Springfield Platteview Superintendent Brett 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.

Impact Aid is a federal program that provides block grants to school districts with a heavy federal government presence to make up for lost property tax revenue. Bellevue initially joined the “One City, One School District” fight in 2005 in the hopes of bringing in extra property tax proceeds to supplement the eventual loss of highly-impacted federal Impact Aid.

That effort by then-Bellevue Superintendetn John 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,” Richards said.

But the future Highway 34 bridge across the Missouri River to Platteview Road will make the LaPlatte area south of Bellevue 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.

“Anything that protects the boundaries so we can continue to operate how we have for so many years is an essential element for us,” Adler said. “That’s one of the things with the Learning Community that we are behind.”

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 Ralston Recorder will look at possible solutions to the school boundary issue and how the climate for school leaders has evolved.

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