LPS officials have asked department heads to cut 1.8% in their budget requests, which would total about $8 million in cuts districtwide.
It was early April and Olivia Maryott was struggling to find a prom dress.
“Everyone was rushing to get a dress,” the 18-year-old said. “We were all last-minute shopping. A lot of stores didn’t even have dresses in stock because they didn’t think there would be any proms this year.”
Like the rest of her graduating class, Maryott had learned only three weeks before the event she would even get to go to a prom. In 2020, her junior year, the dance had been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I never got to experience prom before,” she said. “I was really excited when I heard we would have one this year.”
On Saturday night, Maryott joined her fellow North Star seniors in the school’s cafeteria (nicknamed “The Bayou”) in a shimmery light pink dress and matching face mask.
Though the prom's theme this year was “Masquerade,” a mask would have been required by the school anyway.
Lincoln Public Schools announced last month it would allow its schools to host proms — with strict guidelines to ensure the safety of students and staff.
North Star, Southeast and Northeast high schools held their dances on Saturday night, while proms for East and Southwest are planned for April 24. Lincoln High, which will hold prom on May 1, is the only school not hosting the dance on school grounds, and will instead occupy the event space at Robber’s Cave in south Lincoln.
Among the guidelines outlined for students, the opportunity to attend prom was only offered to the senior class of each school, and those seniors could not bring dates outside of the class.
“I would rather have a prom with just the senior class than no prom at all,” said Ava Cowan, an 18-year-old North Star senior. Cowan and fellow senior Abby Terry came together, each with glittery face masks to match their dresses.
Terry said that though the crowd would be smaller than what she’d always pictured for prom, she was going to “make the most of it.”
Despite the restrictions, North Star Principal Ryan Zabawa said that the school anticipated more seniors than usual to attend prom, saying around 200 students bought tickets.
“The decision to go kind of gained momentum among the class,” Zabawa said Saturday. “We’re very pleased with how many tickets were sold.”
Zabawa said the decision to go ahead with a dance offered the students some normalcy in an otherwise challenging year, one that included a canceled homecoming dance in the fall.
“They missed so much last year,” he said. “I’m excited for them. Our kids need this so bad.”
For the prom planning committee, made up of four students and spearheaded by Student Council Advisor Jace Ahlberg, it was a rush to get things done by Saturday.
“(Student Council) always had a system of planning prom, but we had to kind of accelerate that this year,” Ahlberg said. “Picking a theme is usually the hardest part and we decided on ‘Masquerade’ as a play on the masks.”
Because of the quick turnaround, the committee didn’t know what kind of budget they’d have to work with, Ahlberg said. Students handmade most of the decorations and Student Council members were assigned tasks, each of them showing up early Saturday morning to help get things ready.
“The kids really stepped up,” Ahlberg said.
Ahlberg said it was “bittersweet” to host the prom this year, knowing that there was always the threat of COVID-19 to be cautious of.
LPS officials have asked department heads to cut 1.8% in their budget requests, which would total about $8 million in cuts districtwide.
“There’s always concern about the kids having contact, but as long as we can maintain the guidelines we set in place, I feel good about it,” he said. “I’m happy we’re here. Last year was such a disappointment.”
At the event, seating was arranged in an area separate from the dance floor. Unlike a usual prom, food and drink — aside from water — was not served.
Post-prom festivities, hosted by parents and boosters, took place at Round1 in the Gateway Mall. For $15, students could get unlimited food and games, Zabawa said. Both juniors and seniors were allowed to attend post-prom and bring a guest from an outside school if they wanted.
Nolan Benbow, 18, came to prom on Saturday dressed in all black, waiting for his friends to arrive.
“It’s going to be weird with the face masks, since you won’t be able to tell who anyone is until they get closer,” he said before the event. “Besides that though, it just feels like prom.”
Although LPS already owns a portion of the parkland, when residents found out the plan to transfer 1.6 additional acres, it set off alarm bells.
The board ended the mask mandate on a 6-1 vote, but members cautioned parents and students -- especially high school seniors -- to consider if they should continue wearing masks.
In 2011, Meghan Fry of North Carolina was stationed in Wyoming when she had to sell her childhood best friend, Jedadiah, a horse.
She was devastated but tried to find a family that would take good care of him and appreciate him.
“The people that I sold him to, I thought were good people,” she said. “They came and met me. They brought their two kids with them, and it seemed perfect. The kids were smitten with him, and I felt really good about it.”
Fry signed the bill of sale with the intention of saying goodbye to her horse the next day before the family left with him. In the morning, she headed over the stables at the Wyoming military base where she kept him, but he and thousands of dollars of her horse equipment were gone.
That began a 10-year search and rescue mission for Fry to get Jed back.
She tried to get in contact with the family she sold Jed to, but they were unresponsive to her calls and messages. Despite being upset that they took her stuff, she pleaded with them to just let her visit him from time to time. Years later, she begged them to let her know if and when they ever decide to sell him, so she could buy him back now that she was more financially stable.
Nothing. Even when she tried going to the address they gave her during the original transaction, she discovered that it was fake.
Eventually, she got word that the couple had gotten divorced.
“I did a ‘Hail, Mary,’ and I reached out to the husband, and I was like, ‘Can you just give me an update on him?’ I just want to know, just make sure he’s OK and everything’s good,” she said. “And the husband was like, ‘Oh, we sold him.’”
He didn’t provide any info on who the family sold him to, so she would spend the next six years trying to track her horse down.
“I called every single veterinarian in Nebraska. … I did Facebook, I did (NetPosse),” she said. “If there was a way for me to search, I was searching for it.”
Finally, a woman named Becky Kaiser reached out to explain her relationship with Fry’s horse. She had bought him from the first family with the intention to barrel race him.
Unfortunately, the horse’s back wasn’t in the best shape, especially for something like barrel racing. Kaiser sold him not long after but didn’t have contact information for the buyers and couldn’t remember their names either. Those words were daggers for Fry.
“That’s when my mind just started automatically going to the worst. … People treat horses like livestock, we’ll put it that way. And so, when I heard that his back was hurting, and she sold him and didn’t have any information, I was like, I think this is her nice way of trying to say that she took him to an auction kind of thing, and my heart sank,” she said. “But I was like, ‘I’m not giving up. I’m just going to keep posting.’ I had posted and posted for a while, and there were so many times where I would just cry all the time, because just I felt so guilty for the situation.”
Eventually her husband, Travis, told her she needed to take a break from the search.
“My husband was finally like, ‘Megan, I need you to just accept probably that he’s not out there anymore,’” she said. “He was like, ‘I think you’re going to drive yourself insane searching for this horse.’ And so, I let it go for about six months. I wasn’t posting. I stopped searching.”
Then, just a couple of weeks ago, she decided to post her ad all over Facebook one more time. While she sat in her chair at work, she prayed to God to let her find him, just to know what happened to him and if he was K.
“I said, ‘I don’t need him back. I just need to know that he’s safe. I just want to know that he’s OK,’” she said.
Meanwhile, on a small ranch near Lake Minatare, Sherry Fortner was just getting used to riding her new horse that her friend Cheryl Smith had given her a few weeks prior. The horse was about 15 years old, missing a front tooth and gentler than any other horse Smith new. Smith said she gave him to Fortner because her osteoporosis didn’t allow her to ride any more.
“My bones break too easy, so Sherry is my best friend, and she’s been looking for a horse that she can ride. It had to be real gentle and stuff,” Smith said. “And so, I told her I said, ‘I think I got the perfect horse for you.’ So, she came over and looked at him and she said. ‘I want him.’ So I just gave him to Sherry.”
Smith had the horse for about four years before she gave him to Fortner. Both women loved the horse.
“The absolutely remarkable level of training and life skills this horse has … if you know horses, when you go buy a horse, you hope and pray that this one will let me handle his feet. I hope this one will get in and out of a trailer,” Fortner said. “He is just the sweetest horse. He has such a sweet personality. He’s polite. … I just think he’s awesome.”
It was just a few weeks after Fortner received him that a friend of hers noticed Fry’s Facebook post.
“He said, ‘Is he Jed? And I said, ‘I think so,’” Fortner said.
Both Fortner and Smith read the description.
“He’s a dark bay thoroughbred, about 16-17hh. He was 7 y/o when I sold him, so he would be about 15 y/o now, and he is missing a front tooth,” Fry’s post said.
Fry’s Jed was Smith and Fortner’s Jed.
Fortner messaged Fry on Facebook Messenger that day to let her know that Jed was in good hands out in western Nebraska. Fry got the message while she was out to eat with her husband and some friends.
“I get this pop up from Facebook Messenger and it says, ‘Sherry wants to send you a message.’ And I just had this feeling I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is Jed.’ I didn’t even open it. I had no idea. I was like, ‘This is Jed,’ but I was like … I knew if I opened it and it was him, I was going to start bawling in front of all these people.”
She said she was determined not to open the message until she was back at home. Ten minutes went by, and she couldn’t wait any longer.
“I immediately lost it. My husband looked at me and was like, ‘What?’ and I was like, ‘I found Jed.’ He was like, ‘Are you sure? How do you know it’s him?’ And I was like, ‘Hon, I know. I will know that face anywhere,’” she said. “As I talked more with Sherry, it was no denying it was actually him. So, it was the most surreal feeling.”
The two of them talked, shared memories of Jed and finally Fry made the offer: she’d give anything for her horse back.
Fortner said, “Megan, she says, ‘I’ll buy him back, I’ll give anything for him.’ And it’s like, ‘Megan, don’t say that, somebody would take advantage of you,’” Fortner said she. “Well, like I won’t, but somebody else might.”
Fortner said she had to think about it at first. After all, she loved Jed.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to sell him.’ He’s the best horse I’ve had in several years.”
After a night of thinking about it and talking with Smith, she decided it was the right thing to do.
“I thought if that was me, how would I feel?” she said. “So, the next morning I talked to Cheryl and then I talked to Megan, and I said ‘Look, I need a horse to replace him. I don’t want to be without a horse to ride. If we can find a replacement for him then, yeah, you can have him back.’”
In the midst of all this, Smith also contacted Fry to tell her a little more about Jed’s story during his time with her — fattening him up after receiving him skinny, riding him out to the lake in the summer, his gentleness with everyone he meets.
Looking at the situation now, Smith is glad she and Fortner came to the conclusion to give Jed back, but, at first, both were in such shock they weren’t sure what to do.
“I was shocked. I was like, ‘Really?’ It’s still kind of a shock because she’s been looking for him for so long,” she said. “Sherry got a hold of me first and talked to me about it first. She said, ‘What would you do?’ And I said, ‘Boy, Sherry, I don’t know. It’s a shock.’”
In the end, they just couldn’t keep him knowing this woman who loved him so much for so long was still out there, waiting for the day that they might reunite.
When Fortner told Fry of their plans to return Jed to her once they got a replacement horse, it was too much for her. Fry said that she isn’t usually an emotional person, but she couldn’t remember the last time she had cried as hard as she did. Her husband wasn’t sure he’d ever seen her cry harder.
“You know those cries that you see people do where they literally dropped to their knees? That’s exactly it, I couldn’t hold it together … I think it was I was overjoyed, but I was also so overcome with relief and just knowing that he was safe and that he was OK,” she said. “It’s just one of those things. I was so fortunate to be able to find him and then for her to actually be willing to let me have him back again, to have that opportunity to just love him, it’s just surreal.”
Now, the plan is to make a horse swap in the next few weeks. Fry will drive all the way out to the Panhandle of Nebraska from North Carolina with one of her aunt’s horses that has a similar temperament as Jed. When she arrives, she’ll swap horses with Sherry, giving Sherry a horse that is gentle enough for her to ride, and Fry will take Jed back home after over 10 years away.
It will be a surreal moment for Fry, especially when she can go back to match the missing tooth to his gap after a freak accident all those years ago.
“I still have his front tooth and I’ve been keeping it kind of like Cinderella’s glass slipper,” she said with a laugh. “I have the tooth to match the gap.”
Smith still can’t believe what had all happened within these last couple of weeks.
“Yeah, crazy. And if I hadn’t have given Sherry the horse, she (Fry) probably never would have found him, because I don’t scroll through Facebook that much,” she said. “It just so happens that her partner did and saw that post. … It had to go just right to make it happen.”
For Fry, the biggest thing for her was that Jed had been OK. The kicker, though, was he kept his name throughout his entire journey.
“His name Jedadiah means ‘Loved by God.’ And so for all of that to kind of stay with him … through this whole journey, and for all of this to happen — there’s a lot of God in this story. You know what I mean? There’s no denying it. He was definitely loved by God, and I’m so grateful for it.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts recently defended a controversial new Georgia election law that sets tougher limits on voting than Nebraska has.
On Twitter and at a news conference, he decried “Democrat disinformation” and chastised President Joe Biden, Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball for their criticisms of the law passed last month.
“Nebraska stands with Georgia and supports their work to promote integrity and access in voting,” the Republican governor said.
But Ricketts, who praised the safety and security of Nebraska’s election system last fall, made no call to emulate the Georgia law here.
When asked, the only change he endorsed was to require voter identification. He said such a change would help ensure “election integrity” in the state. The state GOP has tried unsuccessfully for more than a decade to get a voter ID law passed.
State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru introduced the latest proposal, Legislative Resolution 3CA, this year. The measure remains in the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, which is deadlocked on the issue.
Supporters, who include Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, said the measure responds to concerns about election security and voter fraud. Opponents said it would prevent some people from voting and addresses a nonexistent problem.
The proclamation comes as President Joe Biden recently announced a plan to address gun violence. A growing number of Nebraska counties have adopted similar "sanctuary" resolutions.
Evnen declined to comment about the Georgia law or whether Nebraska should adopt similar changes.
If approved by voters, LR3CA would require that voters present “valid photographic identification” to a poll worker before being allowed to cast a ballot. The state would provide free IDs to those who do not have one. The measure would apply only to people voting in person, not those voting by mail.
By contrast, Georgia and other states looking to tighten up voting laws have focused on early voting and mail-in ballots, which were a major concern for former President Donald Trump and his supporters last year. Trump and other Republicans claimed, without evidence, that there was fraud with mail-in ballots in the 2020 election.
In response, the Georgia law cut the amount of time to request a mail-in ballot by more than half, from 180 days to 78, and barred election officials from sending early voting applications to all voters, as many did last year.
Nebraska allows requests to be sent in 120 days before an election, and local election officials can decide whether to send applications to all voters.
The Georgia law, among other changes, requires voters to supply a driver’s license number or other identification on the cover envelope used for mail-in ballots, as well as a signature. Georgia already had a voter ID law for in-person voting. Nebraska requires a signature on mail-in ballot envelopes but not identification.
The new Georgia law authorizes drop boxes, which were allowed for the first time last year under a pandemic-driven emergency order, but limits the number and location of the boxes. It also makes the days for people to vote early in person more uniform, which means fewer days in larger counties and more days in smaller, rural ones.
"Nebraska is declining their request because we are reserving our resources for serving our kids," the governor said. "I do not want our kids harmed as the result of President Biden's bad policies."
In Nebraska, the number and location of drop boxes and the schedule for early in-person voting are left to local officials.
“The huge difference is that in Nebraska, we have a lot of autonomy for local election officials,” said John Cartier, director of voting rights for Civic Nebraska, a nonpartisan group based in Lincoln.
Iowa passed its own new set of voting restrictions this year. The law, which was signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds on March 5, is already being challenged in court.
Among other changes, the law cuts the number of days to request mail-in ballots to 70 days, down from 120, and requires election officials to send out the early ballots 20 days before an election, down from 29 days.
It bars election officials from sending early voting applications unless requested, it allows but does not require counties to set up one drop box, and it moves up the closing time for polling places from 9 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The Georgia and Iowa laws were among 361 bills introduced in 47 states as of late March that would limit voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, based in New York City.
Cartier said the number of proposals around the nation has Civic Nebraska on alert.
“We’re definitely going to be aware of what’s being introduced next session,” he said.
"I oppose the so-called red flag laws endorsed by the president because they would violate the due process rights of gun owners," Gov. Pete Ricketts said.
This year’s Nebraska bills include Slama’s voter ID measure and LB590, introduced by Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, which would shorten the time period for mail-in voting to 20 days before the election, down from the current 35 days. It would also shorten the time for in-person early voting to 15 days before the election, down from 30 days.
Neither appear likely to advance. The eight-member Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee has four members who generally support tightening voting restrictions and four who generally support easing restrictions.
The committee makeup means that four proposals to expand voting are also deadlocked. They are among 843 nationally, introduced in 47 states.
Two of the Nebraska measures would allow felons to vote once they finish their sentences, instead of waiting two years. One would make it easier to request early ballots and easier to get on a list to receive an early ballot every election. The last would require that postage-paid return envelopes be sent with early ballots and make Election Day a state holiday.
Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, the committee chairman, said he hasn’t looked into the changes Georgia made, although he is willing to listen to ideas that would make elections more secure.
“I think we owe it to voters to make sure that every vote counts. I do not support bills that make it harder to vote,” he said, adding, “Overall, I think Nebraska election officials are doing a good job. I believe we have honest elections in Nebraska.”