Friday, November 25, 2005

Nebraska Supreme Court CJ Hendry overrules Senate candidate and former Attorney General Stenberg's request to issue a temp.restraining order in School Merger Case; Presently Judge Merrit's temp injunction is in effect until end ofthis month when he promised a final ruling Associated Press -- The Nebraska Supreme Court refused Tuesday to enter the fight over a new law meant to force the small schools to merge with larger, K-12 districts. The court was replying to a request by former Attorney General Don Stenberg, lawyer for the small schools,. He wanted to ask the court for a temporary restraining order to block the law from taking effect Dec. 1.The order, signed by Chief Justice John Hendry, said the high court can't yet take jurisdiction in the case, which is still pending in Lancaster County District Court. Meanwhile, Lancaster County District Judge Paul Merritt Jr. listened Tuesday to arguments from lawyers on both sides of the issue, which many expect to eventually end up before the high court. Merritt issued a temporary injunction in the case last week and is pondering whether to issue a permanent injunction blocking the law. He said he would rule by Nov. 30 -- the day before the law takes effect. State lawmakers passed a bill (LB126) last session requiring the elementary-only districts to merge with larger districts. But supporters of the elementary-only, or Class I schools, circulated petitions and gathered enough signatures to ask voters to overturn the law in the November 2006 election. The law requires the small districts to be dissolved in June, nearly five months before the vote. In issuing the temporary injunction, Merritt said that, should the law be allowed to go into effect, the November 2006 vote would then "represent a meaningless exercise in futility." Although lawyers for both sides raised other technical issues Tuesday, Merritt said at the end of the hearing that "nothing has really changed my mind" since his earlier decision. Representing the small schools, Stenberg said he fears the state will use the courts to circumvent the vote. Under state law, a temporary injunction cannot be appealed. Stenberg said that if Merritt issues a permanent injunction, the attorney general's office plans to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, which would set aside the injunction while it considers the case. Sec 25-21,216 RRS. The State Committee for the Reorganization of School Districts would then move to dissolve the small schools, Stenberg said. "So we have a race," Stenberg said Tuesday. "I don't think that's a good way to administer justice." Chairman Kendall Moseley said his State Committee for the Reorganization of School Districts would also just be doing its job if Merritt grants the permanent injunction and it were appealed before Dec. 1 -- the date the law takes effect. While enough signatures were gathered to put the question on the ballot, petition circulators fell about 26,000 short of the required total to have automatically suspended the law without legal action. The attorney general's office argued that because petitioners had the ability to automatically suspend the law but failed to do so, the temporary injunction should not be granted. There are 206 elementary-only schools in Nebraska, many of which are in the most rural parts of the state. Supporters of the schools say they should be able to determine their own fates 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.

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