- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Most students in the Omaha school district, Nebraska’s largest, are minorities or poor, but that could change if the district is allowed to gobble up some affluent, mostly white suburban schools, along with their billions of dollars in tax money.

The takeover plan has been the subject of angry protests and talk over backyard fences for months. It is now in the hands of state lawmakers, and may wind up in court if a compromise isn’t reached.

Under the plan, announced during the summer, Omaha would take over schools that are at least partially within its boundaries, based on a unique state law dating to 1891. About half of the suburban Millard school district, or 21 schools, and four schools from Ralston would become part of the 46,000-student Omaha system.

About 46 percent of Omaha’s students are white, with 55 percent of all students coming from low-income households. Millard schools generally are in affluent areas, sprinkled among strip malls and subdivisions, while many Omaha schools lie in the poorest neighborhoods in Nebraska.

Omaha school officials and their supporters argue that the district must be allowed to expand to help integrate schools both racially and economically.

“We are very racially isolated. We are socially, economically isolated,” Omaha Superintendent John Mackiel said. He called the plan “a moral imperative. It is a social justice issue.”

Opponents said the takeover will not have the intended results and a better approach would be to keep current boundaries and instead create magnet schools.

“This is a hot-button for me,” said Bonnie York, the parent of a sixth-grader in Millard who said race doesn’t have anything to do with it. “What irks people so much is they’re trying to cram it down our throats.”

Mr. Mackiel has threatened a lawsuit if the Omaha Public Schools plan is not implemented. The plan relies on a 115-year-old state law requiring only one school district within metropolitan class cities, of which Omaha is the only one in Nebraska. At the same time, Omaha is suing the state over the equity of the formula used to distribute state aid to schools.

The fight moved to the Legislature on Jan. 30 with a hearing on four measures offering solutions. But with no proposal receiving the backing of both sides, it remains to be seen whether a workable compromise can be found.

The Education Committee plans to start work next week on a compromise for the full Legislature to debate.

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