The Learning Community's shared tax system defied the Legislature's intent again this year, shifting revenue to districts other than the Omaha Public Schools.
For the fourth straight year, OPS received less money than it would have gotten under the previous tax system, according to an analysis by the Learning Community's finance officer and its accounting firm.
The Millard, Westside and Ralston school districts continued to gain under the system, the analysis found. The other districts that fared worse under the system this year were Elkhorn, Papillion-La Vista, Bellevue, Douglas County West, Bennington, Gretna and Springfield Platteview.
Amounts are determined by a funding formula in Nebraska law that takes into account a district's enrollment, students in poverty and other factors.
Lorraine Chang, chairwoman of the Learning Community Council, said it's time for lawmakers to examine whether the system is working as intended. The goal was to shift tax money from property-rich districts toward OPS and other districts with high needs and proportionately lower resources.
“The formula as originally devised has to be examined to see whether it's fulfilling the purpose that the Legislature wants,” she said.
Chang said she believes the common property tax levy is still an essential element of the 11-district education entity created by lawmakers in 2007 after a series of disputes over borders and money.
Every year the council has set the levy at its highest level allowed by law, 95 cents per $100 of valuation, in order to pump the most dollars possible into the distribution formula.
State Sen. Bill Avery, a member of the Legislature's Education Committee, said he is willing to discuss tweaking the distribution formula, but he's not ready to abandon the common levy system.
“Maybe we don't have it perfected, but the concept is good,” he said. “So I'm willing to have that discussion, but I caution people who want to repeal the whole common levy, destroy the concept, that I would not support that.”
The good news for OPS is that this year's loss of $347,973 is the smallest for the district since lawmakers imposed the shared tax system.
OPS has lost a total of $6.75 million so far under the system, according to the analysis.
The analysis also shows that creation of the Learning Community reduced the overall amount of state aid that goes to metro Omaha schools.
Nebraska's school aid formula calculates how much money each district needs to educate its children, then subtracts what the district can get from property taxes and other funding sources. State aid helps fill the remaining gap.
By treating the Learning Community as a single district for calculating state aid, lawmakers cut the allotment to the 11 metro Omaha districts by a total of $10.25 million over the past four years.
Under the old system, each district received state aid individually and kept the property tax revenue generated within its borders.
The system of pooled state aid and a common general-fund property tax levy became fully operational in the 2010-11 school year for the 11 Learning Community school districts in Douglas and Sarpy Counties and part of Washington County.
While losing funding under the common levy, OPS students have been the primary beneficiaries of other Learning Community spending on programs to help disadvantaged kids succeed in school.
The bulk of students who are served by the Learning Community's summer and after-school programs are from OPS.
Learning Community Subdistricts 2 and 5, which encompass largely poor neighborhoods of OPS and the Bellevue Public Schools, have received about 85 percent of the program dollars, plus about $1.4 million for capital projects, through the north and South Omaha learning center leases.
A World-Herald analysis two years ago found that in order for the shared tax system to work as intended, the economy must rebound.
Both OPS and Bellevue, the analysis showed, became more reliant on property taxes under the Learning Community's shared financing system, just at the time when property valuations became stagnant.
If property values return to rapid growth, the state's largest school district should see solid revenue gains as a result of the common levy, particularly if OPS's property valuation stays flat relative to other districts.
This year, property valuations in the Learning Community are up just 0.86 percent. Sarpy County's valuation is up 1.3 percent, a meager uptick compared with the double-digit growth in 2006 when lawmakers were contemplating the Learning Community's creation.
OPS officials have contended, so far, that despite the district's losses, the Learning Community tax system benefits the district by tying OPS into a stable tax base.
Asked whether OPS officials still support the common levy, Justin Wayne, president of the Omaha school board, said board members have not taken an official position since their swearing-in in June.
“We're talking about legislation, coming out with positions, and this is something we'll look at as a board to determine what is our position on the common levy and what tweaks do we think may or may not be needed,” Wayne said.