LINCOLN — Could this be the year that Nebraska lawmakers make fundamental changes in the Learning Community and its controversial common levy?
Some key lawmakers, school superintendents and legislative observers believe so.
They say that the 11 Learning Community school districts and legislative leaders are nearing agreement on a proposal that would boost state aid for educating students in poverty in return for ending the common levy.
“Everybody’s working very hard to find a middle ground,” said State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the Appropriations Committee chairman. “I’d be extremely disappointed if we don’t find a compromise this year.”
But no consensus has been reached heading into today’s public hearing on five Learning Community bills.
The hearing is at 1:30 p.m. before the Education Committee.
Omaha and Ralston Public Schools both oppose the leading proposal for change, Legislative Bill 1067.
“For us, it’s about recognizing that poverty is a serious issue in our state and we’ve got to be making some steps,” said Mark Adler, Ralston superintendent. “The common levy provides some stability for us.”
LB 1067 is sponsored by Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the Education Committee chairwoman, who has named it her priority for the session.
That designation means her bill will be the vehicle for any changes in the Learning Community.
Bills without a priority designation are unlikely to see debate in the remaining days of the legislative session.
A second proposal, introduced by Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln, incorporates most of the recommendations made by the 11 Learning Community superintendents in 2014.
Baker did not prioritize his LB 903. He said the superintendents decided to unite behind Sullivan’s bill rather than have dueling proposals.
“The most important thing is to get a Learning Community bill passed this year,” he said.
Gretna Superintendent Kevin Riley said he expects some districts will seek to amend parts of Baker’s bill into Sullivan’s LB 1067.
Both bills feature many elements of the superintendents’ plan.
They differ in how they address poverty funding and the level of continuing collaboration required of the 11 school districts.
Sullivan’s LB 1067 would boost the maximum poverty aid available for schools by 5 percent if they collaborate on a plan to raise student achievement.
Poverty aid is one factor in the state school aid formula.
Under the bill, the Learning Community districts would be required to develop a collaborative plan. It would be optional for other schools across the state.
The bill also would give transition aid to the Learning Community districts in the first three years after the changes take effect.
Baker’s LB 903 would add an extreme poverty factor to the school aid formula, available to districts with more than 40 percent of students qualifying for free school lunches.
Omaha and Ralston would be the two metro area districts qualifying for the aid. Several other districts around the state also would benefit.
The bill would not impose new collaboration requirements.
Both proposals depend on the state kicking in more tax dollars, starting with the 2017-18 school year.
That timing means the bills would not add to the state’s fiscal shortfall during the current two-year budget period, which ends June 30, 2017.
Estimates by legislative fiscal staff put the cost of Sullivan’s LB 1067 at $17.3 million its first year, with a potential of $20.7 million if all Nebraska schools developed collaborative achievement plans.
The cost would drop to about $10.2 million by the third year, as the transition aid phases out.
Baker’s LB 903 was estimated to cost $14.3 million more each year.
Eliminating the common levy would account for about $5.4 million of the added cost under either bill.
With the levy, the 11 Learning Community school districts pool their property tax revenues and all qualify for some state aid.
Without the levy, Springfield Platteview and Douglas County West, each with a large property tax base per student, no longer would qualify for state aid. Other districts, with limited property tax bases, would need more aid.
Sen. Tanya Cook of Omaha said she is hesitant about trading the common levy for state aid.
The common levy was key to the Learning Community structure created by state lawmakers in 2007 to resolve bruising boundary and funding disputes among the Omaha-area school districts.
Cook said it was designed to keep Omaha from becoming like many other large cities, with well-funded suburban schools and a struggling urban core.
“What that common levy represented was buy-in to keeping quality public education” across the metro area, she said.
The OPS board has taken a position in support of continuing the common levy, saying it provides “equitable distribution of property tax dollars and stability and predictability of funding.”
After initially losing money with the common levy, OPS became a gainer the past two years, coming out $2.1 million ahead this year.
In contrast, Nebraska lawmakers have changed the school aid formula in 21 of the past 24 years, largely to control state spending.
“Our bottom line is we are a high poverty, high ELL (English language learner), high needs district with a declining property tax base” in value per student, said John Lindsay, who lobbies for OPS. “The common levy is the only thing that gives us stability.”
The common levy has been controversial since its start. LB 1067 and LB 903 are only the latest of several bills that would eliminate it.
Some previous bills sought to do away with the Learning Community entirely. Others proposed ending the common levy without any increase in state aid.
Baker, a former school superintendent, said the common levy has been a wedge that separates the Learning Community superintendents.
He said it has been a hardship on districts like Springfield Platteview and Douglas County West, which say property taxes going to other districts could have gone a long way to addressing their building needs.
Voters’ anger over the levy has been blamed, in part, for the districts’ repeated failure to pass bond issues.
Walt Radcliffe, a lobbyist for Bellevue Public Schools, said eliminating the common levy would allow Bellevue, Papillion-LaVista and Springfield to resolve boundary disputes. Local officials have said the boundary issues hamper economic development.
Some see impatience about the common levy growing and believe that the Legislature needs to act now to head off future proposals to ditch the whole Learning Community concept.
“Something needs to be done,” said Bill Mueller, a lobbyist for Millard Public Schools. “The issue is: Are you going to do it this year and retain much of the value of the Learning Community?”
Passing something this year, however, does not guarantee that future Legislatures would preserve what remained of the Learning Community or that the state would continue enhanced poverty aid.
Adler, the Ralston superintendent, said that could leave the metro area wrestling over the same kinds of funding issues that precipitated the battles a decade ago.
“I’m more worried about what happens down the road than what happens next year,” he said.
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Correction: Details of LB 903's extreme poverty factor were listed incorrectly in a previous version of this story.
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