LINCOLN — A proposal to shake up the Omaha school board appears headed to the full Legislature for debate.
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said he will schedule a committee vote for today on Legislative Bill 125.
He said he believes the bill has enough support to advance. If it does, Avery expects debate by the full body will begin Tuesday.
The bill would shrink the school board to nine members, down from 12, and force all board members to stand for election this spring. The election would be held at the same time as the Omaha city elections.
Avery said he expects the committee will drop a provision that would limit school board members to two consecutive terms.
Several current and former board members turned out for a public hearing on the measure, which was introduced by Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha.
Two spoke for the bill, two against and two were neutral.
Current board members Justin Wayne and Nancy Kratky argued for the change.
Kratky said she would not have expected to be supporting such a bill two years ago. The 12-member board served Omaha well for many years, she said, but she is now convinced that change would help the district.
Wayne said that, while some have questioned the wisdom of changing the board at the same time as the district brings in a new superintendent, he has seen no indication of concern from the newly hired superintendent, Mark Evans.
Wayne argued it was time to “hit the reset button” in the best interests of students.
Former school board members Brenda Council and Nancy Huston opposed the bill.
Council said shrinking the board and having members run again would not guarantee any improvement in quality.
She said change already has come to the Omaha Public Schools, with a new superintendent on the way and five board positions turning over.
“All the bill is going to do is result in upheaval, but upheaval doesn't necessarily result in positive change for children and families,” she said.
Council fought off a similar measure proposed by Lautenbaugh last year, while she was a state senator.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who defeated Council in her bid for re-election, has signed on as a co-sponsor of LB 125 and testified in support of it.
“This is just the first step to remedy a serious problem in education in the Omaha area,” he said.
Interim OPS Superintendent Virginia Moon spoke for the current board, which took an officially neutral position.
Moon said no one can show whether nine or 12 is a better number of board members.
But she raised concerns about changing the timing of board elections and setting the first election so soon. Potential candidates would not have enough time to put together a strong campaign before the April primary, Moon said.
She said supporters say spring elections would give more focus to school board races, because they would no longer be at the bottom of a long list of elected offices on the ballot. But fewer people vote in city elections, she noted.
She also questioned whether the proposed new district boundaries would provide representation to Latino residents. Latino children make up one-third of OPS students, with African-Americans another one-third and white students the rest.
Chambers opposed Lautenbaugh's bill last year out of concern that his north Omaha constituents would not be represented on a proposed seven-member board.
Lautenbaugh has said he drew the new districts with an eye to having at least one with a majority black population in north Omaha. A second district has a large proportion of black residents, while the rest have a majority white population.
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