LINCOLN — The string of controversies within the Omaha Public Schools is spurring legislative interest in capping administrative salaries, shrinking the board and making other reforms.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha said Thursday he plans to introduce legislation aimed at addressing those concerns.
His plan would also authorize charter schools in Omaha and perhaps more broadly.
Other key lawmakers agreed that change is needed within the state's largest school district — especially within its board.
“There's no doubt something needs to happen,” said Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. “It is clear that board does not function well.”
Sen. Greg Adams of York, the Education Committee chairman, said he would consider all the ideas in Lautenbaugh's legislative package and wants to know more details.
“I truly do understand his frustration,” Adams said.
Lautenbaugh's proposals address his concerns about OPS, especially after the recently uncovered $1 million lump-sum retirement payout to John Mackiel, the former OPS superintendent.
Mackiel also will receive $200,000 a year from his pension, in addition to drawing from a district-paid annuity.
“Recent events involving the Omaha public school district board, its superintendent search, the outgoing superintendent's lavish and apparently unknown compensation package and the ongoing sense of chaos and underperformance by the board and/or the district have convinced me more than ever that change is needed within OPS,” Lautenbaugh said.
He said he will pursue legislation in four areas to:
» Renew an effort to shrink the size of the OPS board to seven members, down from the current 12. A threatened filibuster killed his proposal to make that change during this year's legislative session.
Lautenbaugh said the size of the board is “an impediment to effective leadership and oversight.”
He said the board's size discourages people from running for the office because they do not see much opportunity to effect change. It also deters superintendent candidates who see the board as unwieldy, he said.
» Authorize charter schools in Omaha and possibly the whole state. Such schools get public funding but have more freedom to operate outside the usual rules and regulations. Previous proposals have died in the Education Committee.
Lautenbaugh said parents need to have a choice of schools within their neighborhoods, not a bus ride away. He said the choices should not be run by the OPS board.
» Create a mechanism for the state to step in and run failing schools. Adams offered a similar proposal this year but dropped it after deciding the idea needed work.
Lautenbaugh said the OPS administration has a tendency to resist change and that there needs to be a way to turn schools around quickly. He said there are failing schools in Nebraska, but declined to specify which ones fall into that category.
» Limit compensation for school administrators, at least in the state's largest school districts.
Lautenbaugh said he generally favors local control but believes that limits are needed to stop the upward spiral of administrative salaries. He said he was “appalled” by Mackiel's compensation package.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said all four ideas are worthy of discussion, although he questioned whether the size of the school board is as important as ensuring turnover among board members. He said he is interested in term limits for the board.
As for administrators' salaries, Ashford said he would like to see a way to tie their compensation to school performance.
Adams said he was intrigued about limiting administrator compensation but wondered how state limits could take into account the circumstances of differing school districts.
While he did not support this year's proposal to shrink the OPS board, he said he would be willing to look at the subject again.
Avery said he could probably get behind all the ideas except for charter schools. Adams also has concerns about that idea, which has generated controversy when introduced in the past.
All four of Lautenbaugh's proposals drew enthusiastic support from Justin Wayne, an outspoken OPS board member, and from Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political group.
“We need to hit a reset button,” Wayne said. “We need to restore confidence in OPS and the OPS board.”
Freddie Gray, the OPS board president, did not return messages seeking comment.
Along with announcing his legislative proposals, Lautenbaugh called on the OPS board to drop its December deadline for hiring a new superintendent.
“Many of the embarrassments of the board are too fresh, and I believe many quality candidates will not apply in this environment,” he said.
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