Judge Rules for Small Schools - Suspends Consolidation Law
LINCOLN (AP) - A state law requiring all elementary-only schools to merge with larger districts was put on hold by a judge Monday.
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.
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 school merger repeal will be on the ballot, thanks to a successful petition drive.
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 ruling.
Attorneys for both the state and the schools that sought injunction were not immediately available to comment Monday.
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 Don Stenberg, a candidate for the U.S. Senate and a former three-term state attorney general who represented the small schools. 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.
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.
That June 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.
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.
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