Nebraska Court Halts Omaha Breakup Plan

Plaintiffs in state case say law raises issues around voting rights.

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A controversial state plan to break up the Omaha, Neb., public schools into three districts, largely along racial and ethnic lines, and join the entire metropolitan area in one united “learning community” has hit a major roadblock.

Douglas County District Judge J. Michael Coffey last week granted a temporary halt to the new state law, which is designed to force the Omaha metropolitan area’s 11 suburban and urban school districts to share finances, tax levies, and resources, and devise a plan to better integrate their schools.

The most disputed aspect of the package is a plan that would divide the Omaha district into three smaller districts based on existing attendance boundaries at the start of the 2008-09 school year. The result, opponents say, would be one mostly black, one mostly Latino, and one mostly white district. Within the 11-district learning community, however, students would be free to attend any school. ("Nebraska to Break Up Omaha District," April 19, 2006.)

But now, the entire law is on hold.

The first meeting of the governing body of the new learning community was to take place last week, but the meeting was canceled. Now that a preliminary injunction has been granted, both sides in the lawsuit will await a full trial on the case.

“This is a huge issue. This could change the complexion of education for Omaha,” said Rebecca Valdez, the executive director of the Chicano Awareness Center, which sued the state and metro-area school districts to stop the implementation of the plan. “I think it’s going to be a long road.”

NAACP Is ‘Delighted’

The case in state court doesn’t deal with the broader, more complex issue of whether the law and the breakup of the Omaha schools amounts to state-sanctioned segregation in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is fighting that battle in federal court. ("NAACP Suit Challenges Breakup of Omaha Schools," May 24, 2006.)

NAACP Assistant General Counsel Victor Goode said in a statement last week that the association’s legal team is evaluating how the Omaha judge’s order may affect the federal lawsuit. Nevertheless, he said, “the NAACP is delighted that Judge Coffey … stopped this problematic law from going into effect.”

The key issues in the state case involve the voting structure of the new learning community, and whether it was constitutional for legislators to single out the Omaha district for a breakup when they approved the law earlier this year.

Judge Coffey ruled that those two aspects were troubling enough to halt the law, at least for now.

Because each of the 11 districts is given one vote on the governing council, a small district has the same power as a large one. So the 719-student Bennington public schools, which is 96 percent white according to the Nebraska Department of Education, would have one vote, just like the 46,000-student Omaha school system, which is about 44 percent white, 31.5 percent black, and 21 percent Latino—at least until the proposed breakup.

The plaintiffs argue the voting structure is unconstitutional because it doesn’t adhere to the principle of one person, one vote.

“This dilutes our voice,” Ms. Valdez said.

For a measure to be passed by the learning community’s governing board, however, the law stipulates that votes must represent at least one-third of the public school enrollment in the 11-district community, which comprises the districts in Douglas and Sarpy counties.

Opponents of the law also argue that it violates the Nebraska Constitution’s ban on special or local legislation that applies to only one entity—which in this case is the Omaha school system.

Big Issues

A legislator who helped craft the bill says both arguments are meritless.

Lawmakers designed the voting structure so one district couldn’t run the entire learning community, and small districts wouldn’t be irrelevant, said state Sen. Ron Raikes, who is the chairman of the Senate education committee.

As to the other argument, he said, Omaha wasn’t technically singled out. The breakup, he said, applies to any Class V district, as defined by enrollment, and Omaha is the only Class V district.

Sen. Raikes said the larger issues of race and power are overshadowing what the law is meant to do: bring about tax and education reform while improving integration in a city that’s struggled with racial isolation and related issues among its urban and suburban areas.

“The big change here is now the entire metro area has to come together to address all of these issues. That’s what’s significant,” Sen. Raikes said. “We’re at the forefront.”

He pointed to parts of the law that require the districts in the learning community to come up with integration plans—or face being dissolved altogether. In addition, the community will have open enrollment, so students can attend any school they want, he said.

If there’s fine-tuning to be done, Sen. Raikes said, lawmakers are willing to tackle that in January, when they return for their next legislative session.

Omaha school officials think the law is unconstitutional, but agree that Omaha’s metro-area educational leaders need to get together—though without the legislature forcing them to do so.

“OPS continues to call for all superintendents to have a dialogue,” said Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda, a lawyer for the Omaha Public Schools. “They should be able to do this in the normal course of business, to talk about underlying issues—to talk about curriculum, finances, and integration.”

Vol. 26, Issue 05, Pages 17, 19

Published in Print: September 27, 2006, as Nebraska Court Halts Omaha Breakup Plan
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