LINCOLN — Four of the five state lawmakers from Sarpy County are backing a bill to abolish the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
But they appear unlikely to find five members of the Education Committee willing to vote the bill out to the full Legislature.
One committee member, State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, said he would vigorously defend the Learning Community. Avery was among the lawmakers in 2007 who worked on legislation to establish it.
“I don't believe we have given it enough time,” he said.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who is chairwoman of the committee, said she thought there might be one or two votes for the bill, but she was unsure about the rest.
Four of the eight members of the committee are new this year.
One of those new members, Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha, served on the Learning Community board until being elected to the Legislature last year. He said the multi-district Learning Community has had many successes in its four-year history.
That's not how backers of Legislative Bill 179 see the situation.
Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion said the Learning Community has not delivered on expectations that it would reduce the academic achievement gap.
“I think the only thing we have gained is the creation of a new government bureaucracy that requires funding,” Smith said.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion introduced LB 179. Smith joined Sens. John Murante of Gretna and Scott Price of Bellevue as co-introducers.
Kintner wants to go back to the situation before the multi-district Learning Community was created. The achievement issues would be no worse, and Sarpy County residents wouldn't have to pay taxes to another government entity, Kintner said.
The bill, however, would not mark a return to the boundary disputes that prompted legislative action. It would freeze school district boundaries as they are.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who returned to the Legislature this year, could prove critical to the future of the Learning Community, just as he was key to its creation.
Chambers served on its board during the four years he had to sit out from the Legislature. He said he is exploring ways to improve the Learning Community but doesn't intend to go as far as to propose eliminating it.
Chambers said he is concerned about how the Learning Community board spends money. He criticized it for putting funds into Omaha Public Schools programs rather than developing its own innovative ideas.
Eliminating the Learning Community wouldn't end discussions about how to help students with low test scores, Smith said.
“This is not about destructive legislation,” he said. “This is about constructive dialogue about our educational system.”
Gov. Dave Heineman endorsed the idea of a discussion.
Speaking last week, he said he believes this is an appropriate time to look at whether the Learning Community has served its purpose. He added that he believes, as he has from the beginning, that it adds another layer of bureaucracy.
Some Sarpy County lawmakers have opposed the Learning Community since its inception but have not prevailed in earlier attempts to block it or eliminate the shared property tax levy.
LB 179 is the first legislative attempt to eliminate the Learning Community.
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