Lawmakers consider axing Omaha learning community

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Associated Press

Posted on February 27, 2013 at 12:04 AM

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Several suburban Omaha superintendents told lawmakers on Tuesday that they want to get rid of the learning community created by the Legislature in 2007 to improve minority and low-income student academic achievement.

The Legislature's Education Committee heard about five hours of testimony on four bills that seek to eliminate or change Omaha's learning community, which consists of 11 school districts. The most widely discussed issue involved scaling back funding for transportation services for students.

The learning community was supposed to increase academic achievement among economically disadvantaged students and increase diversity in Omaha area schools. The learning community has seen disadvantaged youth in north and south Omaha improve in school after participating in after-school, summer school and family support programs, said Ted Stilwill, who heads the learning community. Stilwill said the learning community has focused much of its efforts on establishing programs that help families in poverty.

"Poverty is growing faster and faster in Nebraska and the learning community," he said. "... We've had some success and we are on the verge of having much more success."

Stilwill said the learning community should be given more time to meet its goals because it takes time to track achievement. Several lawmakers on the Education Committee — including Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery and Omaha Sens. Tanya Cook and Rick Kolowski — have said they support the learning community and do not wish to dissolve or alter it.

Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner introduced bills that would eliminate the learning community entirely and end free transportation services for students who choose to attend a school outside of their district or more than four miles from their home.

Avery said he doesn't believe Kintner's bill will make it out of committee because the learning community is doing what it was meant to do.

"The Kintner bill is dead upon arrival," Avery said before the hearing. "Any bill that seeks to alter the learning community has an uphill battle."

Kintner said many of his constituents oppose the learning community mostly because of taxation.

A portion of property taxes are levied in Douglas and Sarpy Counties and redistributed to districts in the learning community that need the most assistance. Kintner said the levy generated $6.5 million in new taxes for the 2012-13 fiscal year. He said the distribution of the funds is unfair and leaves Papillion-La Vista School District with less.

Kintner said tax dollars from the Papillion district should stay in Sarpy County and not go to Omaha Public Schools, a district with high poverty rates.

"We can get rid of the learning community and get busy on finding something that is going to close the achievement gap," he said.

Superintendents from Papillion, Elkhorn and Westside showed support for bills that would eliminate or reduce free transportation services for students who choose to go to different districts through option enrollment. The superintendents complained that transportation costs are far too high and take away from funding for educational resources.

Papillion-La Vista School District Superintendent Rick Black said his district has lost $2.1 million over the last four years due to redistribution of taxes. Papillion has been recognized nationally for its strong education system, which has drawn more than 400 students from other districts the past three years through the open enrollment program.

Black is a critic of the learning community because of the loss in tax dollars and high increases in transportation costs associated with option enrollment. He thinks students should stay in their assigned district.

"The goal of open enrollment is admirable, but the law essentially says if your school is not meeting your needs and you want a good education, leave your neighborhood and go someplace else," he said. "There is no requirement or expectation that schools must get better."

Lawmakers also considered a bill by Papillion Sen. Jim Smith that would reduce the size of the learning community council from 18 members to six and require districts to pay for transportation only for students to attend a district that shares a border with the district where the student resides.

Smith's proposal also would stop tax levy dollars from going to elementary learning centers and pilot projects. He wants property tax dollars to be used to fund early childhood education programs for children in poverty.

Kolowski said Smith's bill would diminish the progress the learning community has made with families in poverty. Learning community council member Lorraine Chang agreed and said there is no need for the structural overhaul that Smith's proposal would require.

"Speaking on behalf of the council, I think we are poised to deliver proven programs that give more children from poverty a better chance to succeed," she said.

The learning community has touted its programs in north and south Omaha that have helped immigrant parents learn to speak English.

Dimas Briceno disagrees with getting rid of the learning community. He said the learning community center in south Omaha has helped both him and his children.

"The center has helped me be a good father for my kids," he said. "Their grades are improving and I can now read to them and help them with their homework."

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