A dispute involving the size of the Omaha school board has taken an angry twist, as one elected official raised the spectre of racism and another termed the accusation despicable.
It came out in public Tuesday after State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha gave a speech on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature. He denounced a suggestion, made by Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, that Lautenbaugh's proposal to reduce the school board's size was sexist and racist.
While not naming Gray, Lautenbaugh said the comments had strengthened his resolve to see changes made.
It all started with a meeting that five school board members held last week to gather community input on the selection of the successor to retiring Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel.
Gray and Jim Vokal, chairman of the board for the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, were among about eight people invited to give their opinions. Gray is co-chairman of OPS' African-American Achievement Council, and his wife, Freddie, serves on the school board.
It isn't exactly clear what transpired in the meeting, which was not open to the public.
Vokal spoke first, and he told The World-Herald he suggested that the next superintendent have budget experience in reallocating resources while showing fiscal restraint.
Gray spoke next and, according to both men, took issue with Vokal's comments.
Several people in the meeting provided differing accounts of what Gray said. But according to Gray, Vokal and another person in the room, the word "racist" was used in some manner.
Gray said he brought up Lautenbaugh's proposal, which he says is sexist and racist.
Lautenbaugh says he will propose legislation to cut the school board from 12 to five members amid questions about whether the board is effectively overseeing the district. The lawmaker says he wants to raise the profile of the office.
The board has 11 female members, and three of the 12 members are minorities.
Gray said Lautenbaugh's proposal is sexist and racist because it accuses women and minorities of being ineffective without offering proof.
"I don't use those terms very often," Gray said, adding that he uses them "when I think they apply."
Lautenbaugh, in an interview, said Gray's suggestion was despicable.
"There is no racial or gender component to that (proposal)," Lautenbaugh said. "It's laughable to even bring up the issue."
Lautenbaugh's floor speech came during a special session on the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline.
Lautenbaugh took issue with people who said he doesn't care about OPS.
"My children go to OPS," he said. "I don't think it's very wise to say I don't care about OPS when I sent my children there."
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: