A proposal to end the Learning Community’s common levy is “an all or none” deal that would depend on lawmakers accepting the whole package of proposed changes, Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans said Wednesday.
“This is not a piecemeal where you take pieces and parts of it,” Evans said. “Either take it, or just don’t.”
Evans said he would never agree to dump the levy unless he was convinced that Omaha Public Schools have the resources to serve students.
He said OPS would benefit from several parts of the package proposed Wednesday by superintendents in all 11 Learning Community districts. A critical part of the package is a proposal that lawmakers boost the state aid to school districts that serve poor and immigrant students, he said. That would be accomplished by giving those students greater weight in the state aid formula.
“By increasing that ELL (English language learners) and high-poverty-concentration number, we would actually get more state support than the common levy gives us,” he said.
OPS would also gain from the continuation of the Learning Community’s elementary learning centers in north and South Omaha and the early childhood program launched this year targeting kids in poverty, he said.
Evans said he has discussed the recommendations with Omaha school board members, but they have yet to vote on whether to back the plan.
The recommendation is contained in a report released today.
In the superintendents’ report, they say that elimination of the common property tax levy should depend on lawmakers taking the following steps:
» Boosting state aid to Nebraska districts with concentrations of poor and immigrant students.
» Redirecting about $500,000 in core services funding back to school districts instead of to the Learning Community Council. Districts had formerly used that money for staff development, technology and instructional materials. Lawmakers diverted it to the Learning Community to pay for an independent evaluation of the effectiveness of its programs. To replace those evaluation funds, lawmakers should allow the Learning Community to levy a small property tax — two-tenths of a cent, which would raise about $900,000, the superintendents say.
» Preserving the tax levy of up to 1.5 cents imposed by the Learning Community Council to pay for learning centers in north and South Omaha and programs for poor kids throughout member districts. This is separate from the common levy. Eventually, money from that levy is expected to also pay for the Learning Community’s efforts to pilot early childhood education programs targeting kids in poverty.
» Paying for the 11 districts’ open-enrollment transportation costs with money other than state aid. The superintendents recommend keeping the open-enrollment transfer system, which gives priority to students whose transfers create more socioeconomically diverse schools. But they say paying for the costs out of state aid — $5.4 million last year or $3,600 per student — reduces what can be spent on teaching and learning.
Like Evans, the other superintendents say the recommendations should be considered a package — losing any element would cause its rejection.
“The beauty of it is that the 11 of us agree in principle on these things from an educational standpoint,” said Kevin Riley, superintendent of the Gretna Public Schools.
The unanimous recommendation marks a significant milestone in the rocky journey of the Learning Community, which lawmakers created in 2007 to help disadvantaged youths after a series of district disputes over borders and money.
But it remains to be seen whether the recommendation represents the final blow to the controversial tax system. The proposal has to run a political gantlet — first a review by the individual district school boards and then by Nebraska lawmakers next session.
Nebraska Sen. Rick Kolowski, a member of the Education Committee and former chairman of the Learning Community Council, said the proposal reflects common sense.
“I think what they’re asking for is reasonable,” Kolowski said.
However, Bill Avery, an outgoing state senator from Lincoln and staunch advocate for the common levy, said he’s hearing “the same tune” that critics have always sung.
“The focus has always been on getting rid of the common levy,” said Avery, who is term-limited after this year. “And the reason is that there are certain parts of the Learning Community that do not want to have their tax money going to help educate the less fortunate in north Omaha and places like that.”
After losing money the first four years, OPS got its first financial boost from the common levy this year.
The district came out $1.59 million ahead for 2014-15.
OPS joined the Millard, Westside and Ralston school districts as gainers this year. Losers were Elkhorn, Papillion-La Vista, Bellevue, Douglas County West, Bennington, Gretna and Springfield Platteview.
The common levy is imposed on all the districts — essentially on all property in Douglas and Sarpy Counties and part of Washington County.
The money from that levy is redistributed to districts by a unique formula intended to shift property tax revenue to districts that lack a sufficient property tax base.
State aid for the 11 districts is also calculated differently from the rest of the state’s districts. Rather than district by district, state aid is calculated for the entire Learning Community, pooled and redistributed. The report notes that under the shared system, the state has cut aid to member schools by $13.5 million since it took effect.
The superintendents’ report calls for returning to the prior tax system, under which each district’s aid and taxes are set individually.
The report was written by former Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed on behalf of the superintendents.
Riley serves as liaison between the superintendents’ advisory committee and the Learning Community Council.
He said school board members from each district will have a chance to vote up or down on the recommendations. School board members may make their own recommendations as well, he said.
Ultimately, the recommendations will be forwarded to state lawmakers.
He said the demographic makeup of Nebraska’s schools started to change rapidly in about 2005. The percentage of students statewide who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch rose from 34.6 percent in 2004-05 to 44.9 percent last year. Districts also saw a rise in English language learners.
The state aid formula didn’t reflect those demographic changes back in 2005, which prompted OPS and other districts to sue the state, he said. Lawmakers responded in 2008 by tweaking the formula to help districts with greater poverty. The lawsuit was dropped.
The tweak helped, “but the numbers continue to climb,” Riley said. “And so we know that we have to address that issue. And that is a statewide issue. That’s not just a two-county problem. That’s all across the state.”
The common levy is “never going to generate enough to respond to those increasing numbers, and it hurts us more than it helps us,” he said.
Kolowski said the Learning Community was “an imperfect design made in Lincoln to be placed upon school districts in the metro area.”
It was originally intended to help kids, but it got cluttered up with “sidebar” issues about boundaries and racial configurations, he said.
Avery said superintendents must demonstrate that their proposal is consistent with the aims of the Learning Community and “that it doesn’t break the bank.”
Lawmakers can’t tweak one part of the formula without affecting another, he said.
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