Law & Courts

Nebraska Court Halts Omaha Breakup Plan

By Michele McNeil — September 26, 2006 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as Nebraska Court Halts Omaha Breakup Plan


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Title IX Rule to Protect LGBTQ+ Students Temporarily Blocked in 4 States
A federal judge in Louisiana delivered the first legal blow to the Biden administration's interpretation of Title IX.
4 min read
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus, Ohio. Republican states are filing a barrage of legal challenges against the Biden administration's newly expanded campus sexual assault rules, saying they overstep the president's authority and undermine the Title IX anti-discrimination law.
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and health care stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus, Ohio. Republican states have filed a barrage of legal challenges against the Biden administration's new Title IX rule, and one of them has just resulted in a temporary order blocking the rule in four states.
Patrick Orsagos/AP
Law & Courts Judge Strikes Down Title IX Guidance on LGBTQ+ Students. Here's Why It Matters
In a June 11 ruling, Texas judge said the Education Department has no authority to expand protections under Title IX.
8 min read
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas on June 22, 2017. His office sued the Biden administration in an attempt to invalidate guidance it released in June 2021 stating it would interpret Title IX to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Law & Courts Court Backs School That Barred Student's 'Two Genders' Shirt
The court said the shirt could be understood to demean transgender and gender-nonconforming students, and administrators could prohibit it.
5 min read
ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman, left, and Liam Morrison speak at a press conference following oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit on Feb. 8, 2024.
David Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom, left, and middle school student Liam Morrison speak to reporters following oral arguments over Morrison's "There Are Only Two Genders" T-shirt before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in Boston on Feb. 8, 2024.
Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom
Law & Courts Federal Judge Overturns New Hampshire Law on Teaching 'Divisive Concepts'
The judge holds that the law is unconstitutionally vague because it does not make clear to educators what topics they may not teach.
4 min read
Students walk into the front doors at Hinsdale Middle High School, in Hinsdale, N.H., on the first day of school on Aug. 30, 2022.
Students walk into Hinsdale Middle High School, in Hinsdale, N.H., in August 2022. A federal judge has struck down a New Hampshire law that bars the teaching of "divisive concepts" to K-12 students.
Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP