Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Sifting Through the OPS Mess

by Ryan Anderson

Cartoon courtesy of Neal Obermeyer, as published in the Omaha Reader

Interwoven in the overly-complicated story behind LB1024 are threads of the very worst elements of state politics: Omaha the bully, the rural/urban split, Governor Heineman's naked political opportunism, and the legislative dominance of a single man with a very backward sense of race relations. This is a bill composed of nothing but tripwires, and charged with sorting through it is one of the least experienced legislatures in state history.

Further complicating efforts for a workable compromise is the sheer magnitude of alternative proposals that have already been advanced in anticipation of the new legislative session. Top of the stack is the now months-old plan negotiated by the superintendents of affected districts, which seeks to maintain a semblance of status-quo by shifting the focus away from district boundaries/finances and towards closing the more abstract "achievement gap". Their plan (which has seemingly been cosponsored by the World Herald's News Bureau) offers a few proposals worthy of consideration, but it's foolish to expect equitable academic performance among metro-area schools without an equitable distribution of the city's wealth, and I find the superintendents' continued faith in "voluntary integration" dubious.

While this bill offers legislators -especially the 22 incoming freshmen who had nothing to do with the passage of 1024- a consensus solution that may allow them to sidestep the "Millard Forever!" and "I (Heart) OPS" landmines, there remains one big obstacle in the road: Senator Ernie Chambers.

There is not the slightest hint that Chambers is serious about passing his most recent proposal, which would merge OPS and District 66. By his own admission he is happy with 1024 as written and this proposal seems the opening shot in an upcoming campaign against any measure that doesn't offer Omaha's black community autonomy over their home district. Chambers' argument that Westside is "a white enclave" that should be considered unacceptable to opponents of his plan to create racially identifiable school districts has rhetorical merit, but his intention is clearly to clutter the debate and prevent other suggestions from overshadowing his own.

The only way forward is for legislators to ignore these attempts by Chambers and the superintendents alike to distract the public and change the terms of debate. There are two fundamental issues at play that must be confronted directly for any compromise to succeed. The first of these is money. The creation of a learning community that would pool resources from all metro area schools seems a perfectly reasonable solution to this problem, and there are hopeful signs in the superintendents' negotiations that they will begin to coordinate their efforts to a degree that will reduce administrative costs and minimize redundant operations.

The second issue that must be confronted is race. In this area Omaha has one of the saddest legacies of any city its size outside of the South. Witness the Race Riot of 1919 that resulted in the still prevalent segregation between white "West O" and black "North O". Witness the nightriders who terrified and intimidated the family of a young Malcolm X. And witness the documentary "A Time for Burning", which chronicled the failure of a young Lutheran minister to integrate his Omaha church and, incidentally, launched the political career of a bright young barber named Ernie Chambers.

Today on the intersection of 24th and Lake there is a simple but beautiful memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King and a dream of his that is yet unrealized, in this city or elsewhere. LB 1024 represents an abandonment of that dream. It is intended to move race relations backward, not forward. It is underlined by Senator Chambers' sincere belief that the white man will never care about the needs or the welfare of the black man, that everyone therefore is better off just looking out for their own.

I believe he is wrong, but I will give him credit for calling the state's bluff. The schools, as currently organized, are not serving Omaha's black community. If we are serious about moving race relations forward -moving beyond our troubled past and answering the problems that still plague us today- then we need to put our money where our mouths are. Or where our heart is. If we can't do that, if we can't commit ourselves to that cause, then we might as well just tear down that monument on Lake Street and start all over again.

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Blogger neal said...

That cartoon was actually in the Omaha Reader.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

My fault, Neal. I'd played "editor" with Ryan's article.

Learned from the best. Chuckle, chuckle....

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


Great article, but I think you're being a little bit too hard on Sen. Chambers. He doesn't have the luxury of defending MLK's dream when he's responsible for the welfare of students who need more resources and better education today.

In Chambers' mind, he's simply acknowledging the reality of a post-busing Omaha. And, sad to say, there are plenty of cold hard facts to support his taking the position he has, inconvenient as they may be for the idealism that sustains us.

Anonymous Dave Sund said...

The problem, of course, is that Chambers has angered quite a few in the black community over this very issue. Many of the ideas that Chambers is proposing - namely absorbing Westside Schools into OPS - are good ideas with a lot of merit. But, in part because of his role in LB 1024, in part because of his decades in the unicameral, most will shut it off without any debate, because it's coming from Ernie Chambers.

Chambers has done a lot of good things in his career as a legislator. But often he is divisive and combative. The criticism of Chambers is deserved here. The legislature will miss his experience, but with term limits comes an opportunity for the 11th District to move forward, to once again make it about what the community wants and not about Ernie Chambers.

Chambers' last two years in the unicameral will be entertaining, no doubt. Let's just hope he does good things this time, instead of more damage.

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

"In Chambers' mind, he's simply acknowledging the reality of a post-busing Omaha. And, sad to say, there are plenty of cold hard facts to support his taking the position he has, inconvenient as they may be for the idealism that sustains us."

Oh, no, I realize that. And, as "A Time for Burning" clearly shows, Senator Chambers does have a pretty good read on the reality of race relations in Omaha. My problem isn't with his impression of what they are, it is with his vision for what they *should be.*

I think we should be focusing on creating a greater sense of community in Omaha, which doesn't neccesarilly equate with integration but does require that we have faith in both the white community and the black community to look out for one another. Chambers doesn't believe in that. Maybe he believes it's a nice idea, but he doesn't seem to think it will ever happen. And it certainly *won't* happen if we start passing laws to divide the city along racial lines.


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