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Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Omaha Voters Approve $254 Million Bond Measure

Omaha Voters Approve $254 Million Bond Measure

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Omaha voters last week approved the biggest school-construction-bond issue in Nebraska history, a measure that is a crucial step toward ending mandatory busing and returning to neighborhood schools.

The $254 million measure will provide money to build three new schools and renovate 24 others over the next eight years. And it will allow the district to open three new magnet schools and eliminate most of its 253 portable classrooms.

The bond issue also paved the way for leaders of the 45,000-student district to move forward with a plan to abandon mandatory, race-based busing and provide parents and students a number of new options in schooling. The May 11 measure passed by 52 percent to 48 percent.

Its passage means that, beginning in August, students can choose from among several alternatives, including neighborhood schools. While district officials say maintaining racial diversity remains a priority, many schools, reflecting the population of their neighborhoods, will be largely all black, all white, or all Hispanic.

The choice plan was devised by a task force led by Superintendent John J. Mackiel last year and was approved 9-1 by the school board in February. Its approval, however, was contingent on the passage of the bond issue.

"We needed to be sure that geography didn't dictate quality of resources," Mr. Mackiel said last week. This is "a plan for Omaha schools of the 21st century. It provides continuity and consistency, an integrated educational experience, and it engages families and parents."

Changing System, Old Plan

The district operated under a federal court order to desegregate schools from 1976 to 1984, when a U.S. District Court declared that the system had attained unitary status, a legal term meaning free from the effects of past discrimination. Since 1976, the Omaha schools have gone from 76 percent white, 21 percent African-American, and 2 percent Hispanic, to 56 percent white, 31 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic this school year.

The proposal to end busing, Mr. Mackiel said, stems from the region's increased racial and ethnic diversity, new housing patterns, and recent legal developments that have challenged race-based student assignment in other cities, including Boston and San Francisco.

He and others credited an intensive campaign by a local group called the Yes for Kids committee and a relatively high voter turnout for the bond measure's passage. Local election officials had predicted only an 18 percent turnout, but some 27 percent of the district's voters went to the polls.

Yes for Kids raised nearly $200,000 for mailings, meetings, and radio, television, and print advertising, according to its director, David Kramer.

"It came down to a tax issue,'' Mr. Kramer said. "Most folks knew we needed this."

In contrast, an opposition group, Nebraska Conservatives for Freedom, raised only around $1,000, said its chairman, Doug Kagan.

"The reason it passed is the school district was clever and had as part of the bond issue a return to neighborhood schools," which most people favored, Mr. Kagan said. "People bit their tongues and accepted the property-tax increase on their homes to get kids back to neighborhood schools."

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Page 8

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