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Lawmakers split Omaha school district along minority lines

Backers say move gives each group more control

LINCOLN, Neb. -- In a move decried by some as state-sponsored segregation, the Legislature voted yesterday to divide the 45,000-student Omaha school system into three districts -- one that is mostly black, one predominantly white, and one largely Hispanic.

Supporters, including the bill's sponsor and the state Legislature's lone black senator, 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.

Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican, was expected to sign the measure into law.

State Senator Pat Bourne of Omaha 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 Senator Gwen Howard, also 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 policy makers 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 Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha, 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 and instead requires them to attend their neighborhood school.

Chambers said the schools attended largely by minorities lack the resources and quality teachers provided to others in the district. He said the black students he represents in north Omaha would receive a better education if the community had more control over its district.

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