Omaha Eyes Alternatives to Breakup

Community greets state plan with protests and skepticism.

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Beverly Marks-Williams, the mother of two boys in the Omaha, Neb., public school system, says she knows exactly what she’ll do if it splits into three racially and ethnically distinct districts, as called for under a controversial state law enacted this month. She’ll leave, she says.

“I just can’t see how this is beneficial for students,” said Ms. Marks-Williams, who is black and lives on the city’s predominantly African-American north side. “The world is not just African-American. When you get a job, you are going to have to work with different races.”

In the wake of the legislation’s approval April 13, many Omaha community members and leaders last week expressed a mix of outrage, confusion, and disbelief that their city’s school system could be divided largely along racial and ethnic lines. ("Nebraska to Break Up Omaha District," April 19, 2006)

A few said they back the plan, proposed in the Nebraska legislature by a black lawmaker from Omaha as a way to empower parents. But the loudest cries from within the city were from those who called it state-sponsored segregation. Many said they felt blindsided by the proposal’s quick passage. Some doubt it will be carried out.

Omaha Superintendent John J. Mackiel has called on leaders from nearby districts to meet with him in the coming weeks to come up with an alternative to the plan, which was part of a larger measure to address an ongoing boundary dispute between the Omaha district and other school systems. Under the law, the breakup is slated to take place in 2008.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., who is seeking his party’s nomination for governor, said last week he opposed the legislation. That news sparked a drive to get registered Democrats to change party affiliation to vote against Gov. Dave Heineman, who signed the plan into law, in next month’s Republican primary.

“It’s the law now, but I don’t think that it’s going to come to fruition,” said Shirley J. Tyree, the vice president of the Omaha school board. “I think there’s going to be someone that starts thinking, and says, ‘We can’t do this.’ ”

Wrong Message?

Passed by the unicameral legislature on the last day of its 2006 session, the measure calls for dividing any school system in the state’s largest class of district—Omaha is the only one—into new districts with two or three high schools each. It also says those districts must use current attendance areas as boundaries.

In a city where most blacks live in the north end, Latinos are concentrated in the south, and most whites are in the west, the result would be three districts, with student populations reflecting their respective geographic areas.

The 46,000-student Omaha district is 44 percent white, 31.5 percent black, and 21 percent Latino. Figures from the district indicate that a breakup could produce one district with about two-thirds white students, another with about half the students African-American, and a third with about half Latino students.

While proponents of the law say it wouldn’t create more racial or ethnic isolation than already exists in the larger system, the idea of drawing district boundaries around those residency patterns would send the wrong message, said Omaha parent activist Marian Fey, who is white and lives in the city’s central region.

“As people move into and around the city, it would definitely be a factor in determining which part of the city they want to be in, and where they want their children to go to school,” said Ms. Fey, who also helps run a private group, called the Artery, that organizes youth-oriented art programs.

Arturo Vega has similar concerns. The Hispanic father, who lives on Omaha’s south side, worries that the breakup would make it harder for him to send his children to school across town, as many parents now do through the district’s magnet programs.

“Without one [school system], I don’t think I would have as many choices,” said Mr. Vega, who works as a hotel cook. “Most of the parents are concerned. They don’t know what they are going to have to do, or if they are going to have to re-enroll their kids.”

Such fears made for a standing-room-only school board meeting in the district on April 17. Although members took no action on whether to challenge the law in court, Ms. Tyree said in an interview that outside groups, which she did not name, have said they would be willing to “litigate for us.”

Other Options Sought

Some others say criticism of the measure is unfounded. The legislation that includes the plan to divide the Omaha district also offers new opportunities for students to transfer between districts, provided there is space, by creating a “learning community” among the new Omaha districts and 10 others nearby.

Jim Calloway, who is black and is the interim director of the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha, took issue with opponents of the law. In his view, they are essentially arguing that a mostly minority district would be a problem.

“We don’t have to be dependent on other cultures for us to achieve success,” said Mr. Calloway, echoing the main thrust of the measure’s lead sponsor, Sen. Ernie Chambers, who is Nebraska’s only black state lawmaker. “That’s an important point to make, especially to our young kids.”

Whether the Omaha district actually gets broken up remains in doubt. Not only is there the possibility of a lawsuit, but the district also wants leaders from all of the “learning community” districts to draft a proposal to take to lawmakers that would avoid that outcome.

Gov. Heineman has said he’s willing to call a special session of the legislature to reconsider the issue if Omaha and the nearby districts can reach an agreement. The Omaha district sparked a feud with three of its neighboring systems last year by proposing to absorb some of their schools that sit within the city limits. ("Neb. Governor, Districts Oppose Omaha School Annexation Plan," Aug. 31, 2005)

Mark Hoeger, a leader of Omaha Together One Community, a largely faith-based community-organizing group, predicts that the city district won’t be divided. But, he adds, the debate could prompt meaningful discussion on how to further share students and resources among the districts in the area.

“It still could get us to a great, creative plan, or it could lead us to the sort of negative outcomes that people are afraid of,” he said. “We’re not at the end of anything, we’re at a new phase in the process.”

PHOTO: Students at Central High School in Omaha, Neb., rally in front of the school on April 14 to show support for the school district. The state legislature voted this month to break the district into three school systems.
—Nati Harnik/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 33, Pages 1, 24

Published in Print: April 26, 2006, as Omaha Eyes Alternatives to Breakup
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