If you’re walking what most people would identify as Bellevue, you might be in one of four different school districts.
In Olde Towne, and much of the eastern portion of the city, you would be in Bellevue Public Schools. In northwest Bellevue, odds are good you’re near Bryan High School — an Omaha Public Schools building, one of five in the city.
Along Highway 370 and 36th Street, you might find Golden Hills or Anderson Grove elementary schools, two Papillion-La Vista School District buildings in Bellevue city limits. And, along the southern edge of the city, Springfield Platteview Community Schools is in charge, including in the LaPlatte area between Bellevue and Plattsmouth north of the Platte River.
Until the last few years, these boundaries were subject to change as communities grew and school districts tussled for access to increased property valuation — meaning more students and more tax dollars to support them.
Last week, the Bellevue Leader surveyed the history and impact of the school boundary freeze that the Nebraska Legislature instituted as part of the law that created the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
District boundaries in the metropolitan area are inexorably linked to the growth of the cities that share their name.
Here in Sarpy County, that means concerns that two areas in the Springfield Platteview district might see growth stymied not because of the quality of Springfield Platteview schools but because homeowners expect to live in the district that matches the name of their city of residence.
The LaPlatte area south of Bellevue is set to experience a boom sometime in the near future because of the Highway 34 bridge that will connect Platteview Road with access to Interstate 29 in western Iowa. The area southwest of 84th Street and Schram Road has remained undeveloped despite growth in the nearby Shadow Lake neighborhood in part because the land falls outside the Papillion-La Vista School District.
Essentially, what might typically be thought of as an issue impacting mainly school districts is actually a tripartite scenario impacting schools, private developers and municipal governments.
Those interests are not necessarily in agreement, either. While the City of Bellevue might want to see growth along its southern edge – and with it bring in new businesses and create areas someday ripe for future annexation – Bellevue Public Schools is happy to have stable enrollment it can manage without the need to build new schools, a prospect that would almost certainly require a bond issue.
Developers, like any other business, want to see their investments pay dividends, which means their land not sitting idle while other nearby areas continue to fill in with new houses, new retail establishments and dollars flowing into someone else’s pocket.
The Education Committee held a public hearing earlier this month that brought a mix of school and municipal officials discussing the need to do something about the boundary freeze. That testimony built off input given to the Urban Affairs Committee in a joint hearing with the Education Committee last November at the La Vista Public Library – although ironically Papillion-La Vista was the only Sarpy County school district that remained neutral and didn’t make remarks at that hearing.
The Legislature is currently weighing four proposals that impact the Learning Community, but only one of those legislative bills addresses the boundary issue.
Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford introduced LB 1101 to help Bellevue and Papillion-La Vista pry away undeveloped agricultural land from Springfield Platteview, she said.
The bill would allow school districts serving cities of the first class to take other districts to court if negotiations to acquire land within the city’s zoning jurisdiction were not being conducted in good faith.
Bellevue, Papillion and La Vista are cities of the first class because they have populations in excess of 5,000, while Springfield is a city of the second class with a population of only 1,529, according to the 2010 Census, and Gretna has not officially recorded a population in excess of 5,000 although it likely could.
That means, though, that if LB 1101 is adopted, only Bellevue and Papillion-La Vista would have the authority under Crawford’s proposal to ask a judge to intervene in certain boundary disputes for undeveloped farmland.
Springfield Platteview has made it clear that incentives in the way property tax and state aid are awarded through the Learning Community’s funding formula mean it would stand to lose from negotiating a shrinking of its district boundaries, which is permitted under the boundary freeze if both sides reach a mutual agreement. That could set up a challenge that the district was negotiating in “good faith” to reach a deal, since any deal would likely not be in Springfield Platteview’s strategic interest.
If the district didn’t lose out on more than $4.6 million, by its own calculation, in the past four years because of the Learning Community, that might be a different story, Superintendent Brett Richards said. As it stands, though, the district doesn’t control most of its property tax levy like districts outside the metropolitan area.
If it did, Richards said his district would consider giving up land to Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue to focus on its core around Springfield proper.
“If we had our own levy, we could make those decisions with the community and talk about what kind of district we want to be,” he said.
That’s something Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue would consider in order to be good neighbors to their cities, the superintendents of those districts said.
Given that, Crawford’s bill would not be all bad news for Springfield.
LB 1101 would eliminate the pooling and redistribution of property tax dollars by the 11 districts in the Learning Community. The common levy, as it is called, takes 95 cents of each district’s $1.05 in levy authority and divvies it up based on student enrollment, grade levels and a number of other factors.
The common levy is designed to divert property taxes from valuation-heavy districts to valuation-light districts, while also treating the entire Learning Community as one big school district for the purpose of state aid.
Springfield Platteview is a perennial loser in the common levy redistribution but, as the Bellevue Leader outlined in a series of articles last year, that doesn’t necessarily benefit the school districts it targets, like Omaha Public Schools, because stagnant and negative growth in some areas balances out increases elsewhere in the two-county area.
“When district’s valuations go up, we don’t see that money,” Richards said. “It goes in a pool that gets redistributed out.”
Another proposal, Papillion Sen. Jim Smith’s LB 865, would eliminate the common levy without the additional boundary provisions of Crawford’s bill.
Two other bills, both introduced by Education Committee Chairwoman Kate Sullivan, would make adjustments to the Learning Community without touching either the common levy or the boundary issue directly.
LB 1070 would place a limit on how much of Springfield Platteview’s property taxes would leave the district, as well as helping Douglas County West Community Schools, which also loses a lot of property tax dollars under the Learning Community system.
Richards told the Springfield Platteview school board earlier this month that there has been discussion of pulling Springfield Platteview and DC West out of the Learning Community but other districts don’t want to see that piecemeal approach.
“The reason we haven’t been able to get separated is we pay the lion’s share,” he said.
Sullivan’s other proposal, LB 1068, would change how state aid is calculated for school districts in the metropolitan area, which would have resulted in the districts dividing up an extra $35 million this year. The bill also would also have superintendents study several parts of the Learning Community: governance, common levy, boundaries, enrollment and focus schools and programs.
Bellevue Public Schools Superintendent Frank Harwood said the leaders of Sarpy County’s school districts, and those of the rest of the Learning Community, can work together to come up with solutions.
He said acrimony with Papillion-La Vista in particular is in the past, and he said Bellevue has no interest in trying to forcefully take over schools as it sought to do during the “One City, One School District” campaign.
“If you let one issue define the relationship with other districts, then you have a problem,” Harwood said. “Any of these boundary issues need to be about currently undeveloped property.”
Leader Staff Writer Elizabeth Brown contributed reporting.