Boundary Battle Stalls

A proposed resolution to the Omaha schools boundary dispute failed to advance from the Legislature's Education Committee on Friday, leading the panel's chairman to declare he was done with the issue.

"I don't know what else to do," an apparently exasperated Sen. Ron Raikes of Lincoln said after the committee could not reach agreement.

The committee's failure cast further doubt on whether the Legislature would have time to act on the boundary issue this session, which is scheduled to adjourn on April 12.

Other committee members said there was still time this session and that more work needed to be done before the full Legislature should debate it. But Raikes argued strongly that the only way the Omaha Public Schools and suburban districts will be forced to cooperate is if a bill is sent out of committee for debate.

Once a bill is debated by the full Legislature, "then people start coming together," said Sen. Elaine Stuhr of Bradshaw, who joined with Raikes and Omaha Sen. Pat Bourne in support of moving it out. That was two votes short of the five needed.

But Sen. Ed Schrock of Elm Creek, who, along with Sen. Vickie McDonald of St. Paul did not vote, said there was still time to work behind the scenes before voting to advance. There are 12 working days left in the session.

"Things don't happen unless it's crunch time," Schrock said. "It's not crunch time yet."

Sens. Gwen Howard of Omaha and Gail Kopplin of Gretna voted against advancement. Sen. Dennis Byars of Beatrice was not present for the meeting.

After the vote, Schrock encouraged Raikes to keep negotiating with the schools.

"Keep it up, we'll get there," Schrock said.

"Nope, I'm done," Raikes said as he left the room.

At an earlier meeting in his office Friday morning, the normally even-keeled Raikes pounded his hands on a table while describing his frustrations with the negotiations.

"I'm a little bit ticked off," Raikes said. He pointed to comments reportedly made by Omaha Superintendent John Mackiel to school board members on Thursday in which Mackiel said the lack of legislative action was good news.

"I've been negotiating in good faith, and then I find out it's all a hoax," Raikes said.

John Lindsay, a lobbyist for Omaha Public Schools, said he had not had a chance to review the latest version of the committee's plan. Millard Superintendent Keith Lutz said he was optimistic the Legislature would still act this year.

"As long as we have three or four days left, we're still alive," he said.

Raikes said he tried his best to get committee members to advance the bill, even with the understanding that more changes could be made before it is debated.

"The time for us to act is now," Raikes said. "The longer we wait the less likely we're going to get serious input. ... We need to push people off the fence."

But Kopplin said the 153-page proposal would not find favor with the full Legislature, citing its complexity, proposed property tax increases for Douglas and Sarpy county residents and shifts in state aid to the schools.

Schrock said he was frustrated that "high-paid superintendents won't come off their duffs and come up with a proposal of their own."

The latest proposal before the committee would not mandate any changes in school district boundaries. It instead would create a "learning community" under which all the schools in Douglas and Sarpy counties would share a common property tax levy of $1.10 per $100 of assessed value, which is 5 cents higher than the current state cap.

Students could enroll in any district, and specialized schools would be created throughout the area. State aid would increase by about $24 million for the schools.

The original "one city, one school district" plan called for Omaha taking over 21 Millard schools, about half of that district, and four schools from the Ralston district.

Omaha Public Schools and other supporters argue the district must be allowed to expand to help integrate its schools both racially and economically.

But opponents in the suburban schools say the takeover will not have the intended results and a better approach would be to keep current boundaries and instead create magnet schools.

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