LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – In a move decried by some as state-sponsored segregation, the Legislature voted Thursday to divide the Omaha school system into three districts – one mostly black, one predominantly white and one largely Hispanic.
Supporters said the plan would give minorities control over their own school board and ensure that their children are not shortchanged in favor of white youngsters.
Republican Gov. Dave Heineman signed the measure into law.
Omaha Sen. Pat Bourne decried the bill, saying, “We will go down in history as one of the first states in 20 years to set race relations back.”
“History will not, and should not, judge us kindly,” said Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha.
Attorney General Jon Bruning sent a letter to one of the measure’s opponents saying that the bill could be in violation of the Constitution’s equal-protection clause and that lawsuits almost certainly will be filed.
But its backers said that at the very least, its passage will force policymakers to negotiate seriously about the future of schools in the Omaha area.
The breakup would not occur until July 2008, leaving time for lawmakers to come up with another idea.
“There is no intent to create segregation,” said Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, the Legislature’s only black senator and a longtime critic of the school system.
He argued that the district is already segregated, because it no longer buses students for integration and instead requires them to attend their neighborhood school.
Chambers said the schools attended largely by minorities lack the resources and quality teachers provided others in the district. He said the black students he represents in north Omaha would receive a better education if they had more control over their district.
Coming from Chambers, the argument was especially persuasive to the rest of the Legislature, which voted three times this week in favor of the bill before it won final passage on the last day of the session.
Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel said the law is unconstitutional and will not stand.
“There simply has never been an anti-city school victory anywhere in this nation,” Mackiel said. “This law will be no exception.”
The 45,000-student Omaha school system is 46 percent white, 31 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian or American Indian.