Controversy drew a standing-room crowd to the Omaha school board, its 12 members sitting in front of the district's logo — OmahA+ Public Schools.
So far, the search for a new superintendent would merit the board a grade of, let's say, something less than A+. The months ahead will require lots of extra-credit work.
Not that board members haven't worked hard. But the hiring and un-hiring of a superintendent, and then the revelation that the board's president and attorney withheld information, have left the public wondering.
“This is the most dysfunctional I've seen our board,” member Shirley Tyree said, “and I've been on it for 19 years.”
That's quite a statement. The 1997 OPS board, stalemated over conflicts in leadership style, took 116 ballots before electing its president, seemingly a record for dysfunctionality.
It took only one ballot Monday night to decide the issue at hand — a proposal to remove Freddie Gray as board president. She was retained, 8-4, but not before members of the public and the board had their say, strongly pro and con.
Gray kept her cool, making an opening statement about achievements and the need for unity, and then thanking each citizen who spoke — even those who criticized her. She said there must be no applause, and enforced that when some clapped in support of her.
One speaker, referring to what led to the controversy, mentioned “the Sebring affair.” He immediately amended his choice of words, changing to “the Sebring fallout episode.”
The Omaha board hired Nancy Sebring, the Des Moines superintendent, who then resigned her job there earlier than planned. Newspapers eventually learned she had done so because of the discovery of racy messages sent to her lover on the schools' email system.
More recently, The World-Herald learned that Gray and board attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda knew that racy emails had led to Sebring's early departure from Des Moines but withheld the information from the rest of the Omaha school board. That's what led to Monday's crowd of more than 250.
Because of poverty, OPS has by far the toughest job of the 11 school districts that make up the two-county, Omaha-area Learning Community. The district enrolls more than 50,000 students, about two-thirds of whom qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
Hiring a top-flight leader is crucial. And to instill public confidence after the past two months, the board's new search for a superintendent must be entirely open.
Even some board members who voted to keep Gray as president said there must be better communication. Some supporters said she had made a mistake. Others praised her frequent visits to schools and her ability to forge relationships.
Many said they had received numerous calls and emails from the public. Board member Barbara Velázquez of South Omaha said callers told her that it would be “political suicide” to support Gray and that she should make “the tough decision” to vote to remove her.
Velázquez, who voted to retain Gray, said she wanted to tell angry callers that “the easy decision would be to let her go so you'll stop yelling at me.”
She made another intriguing comment: “I understand what people in the suburbs think of Omaha Public Schools.”
Two days after the tension of the meeting, I asked her if she could elaborate.
“Anyone who is honest and looks at the history of Omaha knows that we have a divided city,” Velázquez said via email. “There are good people and quality schools throughout the metro area, but there are also fears about diversity.”
By comments and actions, she said, people unthinkingly share those fears with their children. Families and students, she added, are told they will receive a better education in certain districts, and some people fear driving east of 72nd Street.
“Many of these comments,” she wrote, “come from people who do not spend time in our neighborhoods, do not know anyone who lives here and have not walked through one building of the Omaha Public Schools.”
After joining the board, she said, she was surprised at the dedication and hard work of its members. And, no, she does not agree that the board is dysfunctional.
The Omaha school board's primary function now, after much controversy, is to work jointly and transparently to find a leader for the years ahead. That decision will be important not just for OPS, but also for the entire Omaha area.
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