Omaha's school district is on the verge of a fresh start.
This spring's elections guarantee that six of the nine Omaha Public Schools board members will be new since 2012. Combined with a brand new superintendent, Mark Evans, who will begin work in July, OPS will have a unique opportunity to reshape its leadership and rebuild public confidence in Nebraska's largest school district.
“It's pretty much a clean slate in terms of governance and the direction of the district,” said John Cavanaugh, who heads the nonprofit Building Bright Futures organization.
The OPS reset stems from a state law passed this year that shrinks the size of the board and requires new elections.
Cavanaugh and others said the board changes allow both school officials and the community to move beyond the controversies and apathy of the past. Instead, they said, everyone can focus on how to improve the district's future.
“To have a successful school district, there has to be active support from the community,” Cavanaugh said. “I think we're seeing elements of that emerging.”
Some worry that all the leadership turnover could be a distraction for OPS officials, setting back progress that's been made in recent years to boost achievement and graduation rates.
“In the administration of public education, you can't push a pause button,” said Thomas Warren, president of the Urban League of Nebraska. “The work has to continue. But I imagine it's been difficult for decisions to be made. It's been difficult for anyone to have ownership of the decision.”
Warren said he hopes that the new school board and Evans will be able to quickly get up to speed, set a clear direction for OPS and move the district forward.
“I tend to be an optimist, and I'm hopeful that the changes will be for the best,” Warren said. “Quite frankly, it remains to be seen.”
OPS voters will cast ballots in the April 2 city primary to narrow the 39-candidate field to 18, or two per district. The general election will be May 14.
The special school elections occur at a time when the OPS board has faced a number of criticisms and controversies:
» A $1 million lump sum payout to retiring superintendent John Mackiel, in addition to his $200,000 annual pension, that caught board members by surprise.
» Last year's resignation of superintendent-to-be Nancy Sebring, before she started work in Omaha, over sexually explicit emails she sent to a lover from her Des Moines school computer. The Omaha board's president and its lawyers did not immediately involve other board members after the information came to light.
» OPS's heavy reliance on outside legal help — costing $13 million over five years.
» Questions about whether the board has exercised meaningful oversight or if it ceded too much decision-making authority to Mackiel.
» Delays in changing school district policy to reflect state law after OPS failed to notify police of allegations of sexual abuse of students.
» January's missed deadline under state law for swearing in newly elected board members.
Such issues have obscured some of the district's positive developments, including rising graduation rates and last year's higher achievement scores on state tests.
The board-related problems also have eroded community confidence in OPS, said Ken Bird, a former superintendent of the Westside Community Schools and head of the Avenue Scholars program that helps students transition from high school into college and careers.
In fact, he said, the negative vibe from high-profile OPS tends to tarnish all of public education.
It's not that past OPS board members are bad people, Bird said. But he said the board has been involved in so many controversies, including disputes with neighboring districts, that OPS needs a fresh start. That includes reconsidering the roles of the superintendent and school board, as well as the board's reliance on outside legal advice.
“It's time to recenter and rethink what they need to do,” he said.
Bird said he has met with some of the candidates to brief them on education policy, board operating strategies and school finance issues.
No school board can close achievement gaps overnight or easily resolve the long-standing challenges facing urban education, Bird said. But the OPS board needs to be able to assure the community that the district is well run and making progress.
“The board's role is to keep the pressure on,” he said.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha introduced the legislation that trimmed the OPS board from 12 members to nine and forced the new round of elections. He said the law was needed even though six members — including four newcomers — had been just elected in November.
“I think it's just more workable,” Lautenbaugh said of the smaller board. “I hope there's more attentiveness, less drama, no more embarrassing episodes.”
It's significant, he said, that the new elections appear to be stirring up more interest in the school board from both candidates and citizens. It's important that OPS residents focus on how their district operates, he said, including attending school board meetings and holding their elected representatives accountable.
“For too long, I've had the feeling that the voters haven't paid attention,” he said.
Last May, 13 people filed for six seats. In 2006, six incumbents ran unopposed.
This year, each of the nine seats has at least three candidates. The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce was one group that worked to recruit candidates for the unpaid, often time-consuming positions.
The eventual winners, as a group, will represent a break from the past. Six of the races include incumbents, but half of those joined the board just 10 weeks ago. Only two of the races involve incumbents who were on the board before 2011.
At least three of the new board members — and potentially all of them — will be rookies.
Warren said that's a potential problem. Some new board members may have no experience in holding elective office or serving on a governing board, he said, and they'll be working with a superintendent who is new to Omaha.
Meanwhile, he said, OPS leaders must run a district that spends nearly $500 million a year in its general fund, educates about 50,000 students and deals with a set of challenges that is unique among Nebraska districts.
“This is a critical period for the district and the city of Omaha,” Warren said.
Cavanaugh agreed, saying that he looks forward to a new era for OPS. He said the district can build on areas where it has made progress in recent years while putting aside the problems of past school boards.
“I think the dynamic now shifts to the future,” Cavanaugh said.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1114, firstname.lastname@example.org
Electing a new OPS board
Omaha voters will head to the polls April 2 for a primary election in a school board race that's been called the most competitive since 1978. Two candidates in each subdistrict will advance to the May 14 general election. The results will determine who governs the state's largest school district, which received $166.1 million in state aid this school year.
Coming Monday in The World-Herald: An OPS overview of who's running. Look for candidates' views on issues and learn more about them.
Attend a forum in your subdistrict
These forums are sponsored by The World-Herald and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Look for complete coverage in The World-Herald.
THURSDAY (7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.)
Subdistrict 1: Benson High School, 5120 Maple St.
Subdistrict 2: North High School, 4410 N. 36th St.
Subdistrict 3: Lewis and Clark Middle School, 6901 Burt St.
SATURDAY (10 a.m to 11:30 a.m.)
Subdistrict 4: Northwest High School, 8204 Crown Point Ave.
Subdistrict 5: Buffett Middle School, 14101 Larimore Ave.
Subdistrict 6: Burke High School, 12200 Burke St.
MARCH 26 (7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.)
Subdistrict 7: Norris Middle School, 2235 S. 46th St.
Subdistrict 8: Bryan High School, 4700 Giles Road
Subdistrict 9: South High School, 4519 S. 24th St.