LINCOLN, Neb. — 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 Latino.
Supporters said the plan would give minorities control over their own school boards and ensure that their children were not shortchanged in favor of white youngsters.
Republican Gov. Dave Heineman signed the measure into law.
Omaha state Sen. Patrick Bourne criticized 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 state Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha.
Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning sent a letter to one of the measure's opponents saying that the bill might be in violation of the Constitution's equal-protection clause and that lawsuits almost certainly would be filed.
But its backers said that at the very least, the bill's passage would force policymakers to negotiate seriously about the future of Omaha-area schools.
The breakup would not occur until July 2008, leaving time for lawmakers to come up with another plan.
"There is no intent to create segregation," said Omaha state Sen. Ernie Chambers, the Legislature's only black senator and a longtime critic of the school system.
He argues that the district is already segregated because it no longer buses students for integration purposes, instead requiring them to attend their neighborhood schools.
Chambers said the schools attended largely by minorities lacked the resources and quality teachers provided other schools in the district. He said the black students among his north Omaha constituency would receive a better education if they had more control over their school 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 Supt. John Mackiel said the law was unconstitutional and would 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% white, 31% black, 20% Latino and 3% Asian or American Indian.