Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Class I's win injunction from District Judge Merritt, staying enforcement of the LB 126 forced school consolidation law, even though petition backers did not have enough signatures to win an automatic suspension of the law's taking effect Associated Press A state law requiring all elementary-only schools to merge with larger districts was put on hold by Lancaster County District Judge Paul Merritt Monday, keeping alive hopes that voters next year will overturn the the consolidation law. Even if voters don't repeal the law, at the very least the Legislature will have to rewrite it to set new deadlines, said Sen. Ron Raikes of Lincoln, the chief backer of the law. "I'm just very disappointed," Raikes said. If the schools are dissolved as current law requires in June 2006, "a fair opportunity to vote in a meaningful manner will not be available," Lancaster County District Judge Paul Merritt Jr. ruled. Merritt's granting of a temporary injunction means that the law is suspended and the mergers cannot move ahead. Unless his decision is overturned, the schools can remain open at least until voters get a chance in November 2006 to decide whether to throw out the merger law. "There's no doubt in my mind that we'll win at the ballot box," said Mike Nolles, president of Class I's United, a group that supports the elementary-only schools. A petition drive is putting the issue on the ballot, and supporters of the elementary-only, or Class I schools, sought the injunction to have the law suspended in case voters repeal it in the November 2006 election. The law requires the districts to be dissolved in June, 4 1/2 months before the vote. Should the law be allowed to continue, the November vote would then "represent a meaningless exercise in futility," Merritt said in his 10-page ruling. Small-school backers will now seek a permanent injunction and, if granted, that decision could then be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Attorney General Jon Bruning's spokeswoman Regan Anson had no comment on the judge's ruling, but said the office will continue to defend the law in court. Don Stenberg, a candidate for the U.S. Senate and a former three-term state attorney general who represented the small schools, said he was confident Merritt's ruling would stand. "The important central facts are not in dispute," Stenberg said. The ruling was hailed by small-school backers. "There's going to be a lot of Class I parents who sigh a big sigh of relief," Nolles said. The injunction request was brought by 10 schools and three individuals. "Obviously we're happy about the decision but also feel it's fair," said Matt Nessetti with Nebraskans for Local Schools, a group that spearheaded the drive to repeal the law. "Our whole goal initially was to give the people a voice about this." While enough signatures to put the question of repealing the law on the ballot, petition circulators fell about 26,000 short of enough to have automatically suspended the law without legal action. The state attorney general's office argued that because petitioners had the ability to automatically suspend the law but failed to do so, the injunction should not be granted. But the judge agreed with arguments made by Stenberg. He said that because a vote to repeal the law would be meaningless unless the law were suspended, the court would be justified in issuing the injunction. "This decision is a great victory for every Nebraska voter," Stenberg said. "The judge is absolutely right. The constitution guarantees the people a fair opportunity to vote in a meaningful manner." The school consolidation law, passed by the Legislature earlier this year, calls for orders merging the schools to be entered by Dec. 1, with the mergers taking effect June 15, 2006. The school reorganization committee has a two-day meeting planned for next week, during which it was to issue the orders. Department of Education spokeswoman Betty VanDeventer said the judge's ruling and its impact on that meeting were being reviewed Monday. The June merger deadline "impedes and hampers, or renders ineffective, the ability of the people to complete their exercise of the referendum power in a meaningful manner," the judge said in his ruling. This year there are 206 elementary-only schools in Nebraska, many of which are in the most rural parts of the state. Supporters of the schools fought the law, saying they should be able to determine their own fate and not be forced to merge. Law proponents argue that having K-12 districts statewide will save money and provide a more equitable education to all students.

No comments: