Omaha-Area Districts to Share Revenue, Programs
A new school governance arrangement will link the Omaha, Neb., district with 10 surrounding school districts—financially as well as educationally.
A state bill, signed into law May 25 by Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, ends two years of wrangling that began with the Omaha district’s creation of a plan in 2005 to annex land and schools from three surrounding districts located within city limits.
Local superintendents protested the Omaha district’s “one city, one school district” plan. Then, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature last spring approved a plan that would have broken Omaha into three separate districts, largely among racial and ethnic lines. ("Nebraska Court Halts Omaha Breakup Plan," Sept. 27, 2006.)
Observers say the success of the new bill, which supersedes the previous legislation and leaves the 46,000-student Omaha district intact and boundaries of other districts unchanged, depends on how the affected districts iron out the details.
Many other states have revenue-sharing agreements that distribute money from rich districts to less-affluent ones. But the Nebraska law ties Omaha and surrounding jurisdictions together in a way that seems unique—if the districts don’t protest, said Michael Griffith, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
Since the legislation creates another elected body that would oversee some educational efforts, he said, there could be conflicts with that board and the individual school districts, which still retain power. “When the boards have a disagreement, who wins?” he said. “And do they always win?”
The new law retains the previous measure’s concept of creating a “learning community” of the 11 districts, located in Douglas and Salpy counties, which educate about 100,000 children.
The goal is for each school to have 35 percent students who are of low socioeconomic status. Students would be able to transfer freely between schools that have space for them, regardless of the district where they live. A paid, 18-member board will oversee specific issues that do not relate to the operations of the individual districts for the learning community.
The state will levy a common tax on the two counties that will be distributed to districts based on enrollment and other needs. Districts will be able to levy their own tax, and another, smaller tax levy will pay for an areawide school construction program.
The plan calls for the creation of “focus schools,” with programs intended to attract students from more than one district. The construction of those boundaryless schools will be part of the duties of the new learning-community board.
Although the provisions of the bill will not take effect until the 2009-10 school year, the superintendents are in conversations to create a “focus school” that would stand as a symbol of what they can achieve working together, said Kenneth Bird, the superintendent of the 6,000-student Westside district.
That school, which could be a Chinese-immersion elementary program, could be located in an existing building in the Westside district, he said.
“We want to build off the energy that we have here,” Mr. Bird said. At the same time, he said, the school might show that Omaha-area districts don’t need the learning-community board.
Sen. Ron Raikes, the chairman of the Nebraska legislature’s education committee, views the money-sharing provision as one of the most challenging aspects of the new law. “People are willing to go along with things, as long as it doesn’t cost them anything,” he said. “That was a tough part. But it’s in there.”
John J. Mackiel, the Omaha superintendent, said the plan was a positive move. He had opposed the plan to break up his district.
“For the first time, we’re going to speak collectively with one voice,” he said.
Vol. 26, Issue 39, Page 5