OMAHA -- The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that a board that oversees 11 Omaha-area school districts can continue to levy property taxes that help fund the schools, overturning a lower court decision.
The high court said Friday it is clear taxes assessed by the Learning Community serve a mostly local purpose. It pointed out that the tax rate is the same for all the districts and each derives some benefit from the revenues.
A Sarpy County court had found the Learning Community board's taxes unconstitutional, saying they served a state purpose. Property taxes can be levied for local purposes, but the state constitution prohibits the levying of property taxes for state purposes.
The Learning Community was created by the Legislature in 2006 and oversees common property tax levies among 11 school districts in Douglas and Sarpy counties. The community's intent is to de-emphasize district borders and sharpen the focus on achievement and diversity.
"It confirms a basic fairness in educational funding, allowing us to work together on what really matters in education," Learning Community CEO Ted Stilwell said of the ruling. "We are pleased that our member school districts will continue to receive dollars based on student need."
Attorney Kurth Brashear said the court's unanimous decision should end any questions about the board's tax authority.
"It's a great affirmation of the work the Legislature did in creating learning communities," he said.
Matthew Rusch, an attorney for the plaintiffs, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
The Learning Community's property taxes came under fire because the board has been redistributing tax revenue and state aid between the 11 districts to make funding more equitable. That means districts with high numbers of poor students and low property tax revenue get more money -- much of that coming from districts with higher property tax revenue.
The lawsuit filed by the Sarpy County Farm Bureau and eight residents objected to that system because they believed it was unfair for some school districts to receive more money at the expense of taxpayers in others. The high court disagreed.
Public school districts included in the Learning Community are Omaha, Elkhorn, Millard, Ralston, Bennington, Bellevue, Papillion-La Vista, Gretna, South Sarpy, Douglas County West and Westside Community schools.