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Thursday, April 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Omaha schools: Divide and conquer?

Knight Ridder Newspapers

OMAHA, Neb. — A perfect storm had brewed for months over the public schools here. But nobody in Nebraska saw this twister coming.

In one surreal week at the Capitol, a surprise amendment from the state's only black senator reconfigured efforts to deliver relief to the Omaha School District.

Under the bill swiftly signed this month by Gov. Dave Heineman, the urban district in 2008 would be carved into three new districts: one mostly white, one mostly black and one largely Hispanic. The law doesn't say that outright, but its mapping requirements make such an outcome inevitable, given the city's housing patterns.

Legal challenges are expected.

"Kansas and evolution. South Dakota and abortion. Now it's school segregation in Nebraska," said Luanne Mainelli Nelson, information director for Omaha public schools, rolling her eyes over her state's action.

But in the Cornhusker State, hardly anything is as it appears.

For starters, the lawmaker who proposed chopping the district into ethnic thirds — against the will of district officials — is no right-wing rube, but rather a longtime state senator from Omaha, Ernie Chambers.

Chambers, a familiar critic of the city's power structure, says families in predominantly black neighborhoods of northeastern Omaha don't want their schools controlled by mostly white administrators who hire mostly white teachers.

Consider also that the new law started out as an attempt to ease funding inequities and give low-income schools a lift.

Here's the history:

In June, Omaha Superintendent John Mackiel cited an 1891 state law to argue that any home or school within the city limits rightfully belonged in his district. Mackiel, who is white, sought to direct more money to inner-city schools racked by a weakening tax base.

Civic and business leaders, including billionaire Warren Buffett, endorsed this "One City, One School District" plan as a way of correcting 1970s-era white flight, in which developing suburbs hurried to form or expand their own school systems. Many of the new suburbanites still lived within Omaha's borders, but their children attended school in a different district.

To most of those residents last summer, however, the sudden unveiling of "One City, One School District" had all the appeal of an unwanted neighbor banging at their doors.

"No thanks!" screamed yard signs at the edges of Omaha.

The Nebraska Legislature had to settle the issue.

It reached a consensus: Suburban school boundaries would stay intact, but a common levy and revenue sharing would apply to all public districts in Douglas and Sarpy counties, including Omaha.

The dozen districts in this so-called learning community must also open their schools to one another's children to reduce the concentration of poor and minority children in northeast Omaha.

While the suburbs stewed over what was shaping into a bill limiting their autonomy, Omaha school officials erupted in indignation at the unexpected: Chambers rallied support, in just days, for his call to divide their district in ways that fostered racial clusters.

His addition to the 170-page bill consumed a mere two pages, but that was enough to attract national and even global media attention.

"It's crazy stuff," said John Langan, dean of education at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "Amid all the vendettas and vested interests — and squirrels in the Legislature — you've got real kids and their parents wondering every day, 'What's going to happen to us?'"

Many legal scholars and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People contend that the Chambers amendment is an unconstitutional throwback to the "separate but equal" policies before 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered desegregation in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.

Others aren't so certain that the state law should be struck down. An editorial in The Omaha Star, Nebraska's only black-owned newspaper, backed Chambers' idea, saying it could provide more resources and local control to disenfranchised residents: "This concept [that] black kids can't be successfully educated unless they are around white kids is in and of itself patently racist and illogical."

Districtwide, Omaha's student mix stands at 44 percent white, 31 percent black and 21 percent Hispanic.

"Segregation has always been here and always will be here, so ... how can you mitigate the harm it does to our children?" Chambers says. "The only chance they've got is if parents control the schools. ... It's as American as apple pie."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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