Those living in the Omaha metro area must have heard of the school district disputes of recent years. A history of a lack of cooperation, racial division, financial needs, and legislation has created a plan for a Learning Community made up of the 11 Douglas and Sarpy County school districts. Many in these districts may be left wondering what exactly the Learning Community is, what it will involve, and how it will affect them. It also begs the question of will the plan actually work? What is the point of it? It would seem that too many questions have been left unanswered for concerned parents. It therefore seems pertinent to inform those involved of the plan and to point out the flaws, lack of representation, and unjust redistribution that it holds.
In 2000 Omaha Public Schools was struggling financially. As the city of Omaha annexed more surrounding neighborhoods, including the city of Elkhorn, the OPS district attempted to enforce the statute that the school district's boundaries extend as far as the city's boundaries. OPS was also struggling with racial division within its current district. Around the same time the Bellevue and Papillion-LaVista school districts were in a dispute over several Papillion-LaVista elementary schools within Bellevue city limits. Bellevue wished to incorporate them, while Papillion-LaVista insisted that when the concerned neighborhoods had been outside city limits, Bellevue had not wished to deal with funding the building of schools for them. However, now that there were established homes and obtainable revenue, Bellevue wished to incorporate both the neighborhoods and their schools.
The continuing disputes led the Nebraska Legislature to attempt to force cooperation between the school districts. After several months of debate and little progress the result was a bill passed by the Nebraska Legislature in 2006. LB1024 created a Learning Community between the districts, froze school district boundaries, and split OPS into three districts based on race. In 2007 LB641 was passed. It amended LB 1024 and allowed OPS to stay as one district. Altogether the bills created a Learning Community, set up a Learning Community Coordinating Council, and established laws to begin for the 2009-2010 school year.
The questions begin. What is the Learning Community? It freezes school district boundaries but opens enrollment within the 11 school districts. This means that any student can go to any school district within the Learning Community. In an attempt to balance the "socio-economic" demographic among the districts, which means priority is given to students who go to a school in the middle of Omaha because it will give them a better balance among races. This also means that if a student chooses to stay in say, Papillion because that is where their family and friends are, they take second priority. The Learning Community will also share tax dollars, state aid, and a common levy tax across the districts. Money will be distributed based on "need". This means that the taxes will be higher in Papillion-LaVista, but more of the money will go into Omaha schools.
What is the Coordinating Council? What will it be able to do? It will levy and distribute the tax across the districts, levy for the budget and for approved projects, develop focus schools and work to "diversify" enrollment in the districts, collect data from the surrounding areas, and add another layer of bureaucracy above the existing district school boards. The area involved will be split into six electoral subdistricts. The largest of these will consist of a majority of the suburban school districts. The Council will be made up of 18 voting members, three from each district. They will make up the "achievement subcouncil". A non-voting member will be added for each school district not represented by the voting members. This of course is in an attempt to involve everyone. Yet, how is it fair if one subdistrict is made up of several school districts, with possibly conflicting interests, to only get three votes to spread around as opposed to an inner-Omaha subdistrict that is only made up of one school district and has similar interests? Subsequently, how is it fair to let a school district that is not represented sit on the board but not actually give them a vote? What will they do, sit and watch decisions being made that they can do nothing to change? The fact is that this is not fair and to call it such is to insult the intelligence of those involved.
On the Papillion-LaVista school district's website the district attempts to inform parents about the Learning Community and to share several of their concerns. The concerns listed are over governance, finances, student achievement, and specialized legislation. The Learning Community council is just another layer of governance that is going to be given $1 million annually. The Papillion-LaVista school district is not even guaranteed representation on this council beyond the status of a non-voting, helpless bystander. Financially, there are more concerns. The property tax for the Learning Community will be divided across two counties that don't evaluate property the same way. Property taxes collected in Papillion and LaVista will also not necessarily stay in the school district, as all taxes will be pulled together and redistributed, a school district form of socialism. The Papillion-LaVista school district is also concerned because there is nothing in the new legislation that focuses on student achievement. All the law does is move students around in order to "diversify". This adds a financial burden on the school district to provide the transportation and begs the question of what this is actually doing to help students. Finally, the district wonders that if legislators consider this to be a great, innovative plan, why are they only requiring it for Douglas and Sarpy County? It seems that this is simply the Legislatures way of stopping bickering and punishing the school districts for not "playing nicely".
In simple terms the Learning Community is a way of forcing opposing groups to work together. It adds a layer of bureaucracy that will raise taxes and take representation away from administrators and parents. Taxes will be taken out of a community and implemented in unknown places. A financial and structural burden will be placed on individual school districts with little concern for the wellbeing of students beyond the fact that they go to a "racially diverse" school, regardless of what that does for them academically. It seems to be an awful waste of time and resources with little gain for the community as a whole.