LINCOLN — State lawmakers overwhelmingly backed a bill Wednesday that would boost early childhood education and halve transportation costs within the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
An amended version of Legislative Bill 585 cleared first-round debate on a 42-0 vote.
Among those voting for advancement were three senators who had co-sponsored a bill to kill the four-year-old entity.
State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who introduced LB 585 and backed the elimination proposal, praised the compromise measure.
“I do believe this bill is a good compromise,” he said. “I do believe it benefits taxpayers.”
He and Sen. John Murante of Gretna said the bill improves the Learning Community — and isn't about killing it.
“I'm exceedingly pleased that we found some common ground,” Murante said.
As advanced, LB 585 would reduce the Learning Community's taxing authority by one-third.
The Learning Community now can levy up to 2 cents for capital projects, such as building or remodeling elementary learning centers and focus schools, and up to 1 cent for programs such as operating elementary learning centers and innovative learning projects.
Kent Rogert, the Learning Community lobbyist, said the organization now levies 1 cent for programs and less than one-quarter cent for learning center leases.
Under the bill, the capital project levy would be limited to one-half cent, while the levy for programs could grow to 1 ½ cents. The program levy would be expanded to cover early childhood education programs.
About $7 million a year would be available to fund early childhood education and to operate elementary learning centers, including the two existing centers in north and South Omaha, Rogert said.
The bill also would cut transportation costs by eliminating free busing for students using open enrollment to attend a different school within their home district, or to go to a district that does not share a boundary with their home district.
Rogert said the transportation change would cut in half the $3million now being spent.
Not all senators were happy with the compromise, though.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion railed against the Learning Community, saying his constituents did not have a choice in being part of the entity. He compared it to the Berlin Wall that was built to keep residents of the former community East Germany from escaping to West Germany.
“I say to (the Education Committee), tear down that wall,” Kintner said. “Let my people go.”
He described the Learning Community as social engineering that his constituents oppose almost unanimously.
Bellevue Sen. Scott Price questioned why education tax dollars were being spent on social services such as parenting classes for teen mothers and English as a Second Language instruction for adults.
Lawmakers involved with the beginnings of the Learning Community responded by describing the controversies that led to its creation.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said the Learning Community was the Legislature's solution to multiple controversies about finances and boundaries among the 11 Omaha-area school districts. All districts agreed to the solution, he said.
Speaker Greg Adams of York said the goal was to eliminate distractions that prevented districts from addressing achievement gaps for disadvantaged students.
“It was designed to try to make 11 school districts talk to each other,” he said.
Funds from state school aid and the common levy are redistributed among the districts with the goal of sharing resources equitably across the Omaha area. As part of the compromise, Smith promised he would not accept any amendments aimed at hijacking the bill.
Rogert said the amended LB 585 addressed some “irritants” for participating school districts.
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