The World-Herald asked candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board for their views on several issues facing the district. Here, you'll find the answers to six questions for the Subdistrict 4 candidates.
Occupation: assistant professor, psychology
Public offices held: none
Education: Doctorate, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Family: married, five daughters
Jill Brown grew up a Nebraska farm girl in “the middle of nowhere,” she said.
A yearning to broaden her horizons led her to Africa and India, experiences that fueled her passion for psychology and culture, Brown said.
Like her two brothers, she was adopted as an infant by a couple who farmed between Minden and Kearney in south-central Nebraska.
Attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as an undergraduate was “like a cultural revolution,” she said.
She joined the Peace Corps in 1996, unsure of a career path but wanting “to understand better what this world is about,” she said.
For three years, she lived with a family in a rural village in Namibia, Africa, she said.
After returning to the United States, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and studied one year in India, she said. She then obtained her doctorate degree in psychology from UNL and was hired as an assistant professor at Creighton University in Omaha.
Brown said she feels her skills would help the Omaha Public Schools, particularly in dealing with issues surrounding kids from diverse backgrounds all coming together in one place to be educated.
She said she wants to make sure the goals of students, teachers and the community are closely aligned.
Brown said becoming a stepmother of four girls taught her patience and perseverance. She and her husband also have a daughter, who is in first grade at the Montessori Parents Co-Op school.
Justin T. Wayne
Occupation: assistant director of labor relations at Union Pacific Railroad
Public offices held: OPS
Education: Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Juris Doctor, both at Creighton
Family: married, one daughter
Justin Wayne learned through hard luck that a good education is the most reliable ticket to success.
He was a standout basketball player at Omaha Northwest High School, but his dreams of walking on at the University of Kansas fell short.
He was hit by a drunken driver his senior year in high school, and the nagging injuries ended his career at Kansas after two years, he said.
Wayne said he overcame that setback because good grades helped him win scholarships to Creighton University, where he obtained the law degree that landed him a job as a labor relations attorney at Union Pacific.
Wayne, a lifelong resident of Omaha, said his upbringing and experiences attending the Omaha Public Schools affected him.
He saw his parents work two and three jobs to make ends meet, he said. He remembers giving up the saxophone in sixth grade because his family couldn't afford it.
Wayne won admission by lottery to King Science & Technology Magnet Middle School.
When he later entered Northwest High and rejoined kids from the neighborhood who had attended Nathan Hale Middle School, he found he was ahead of them academically.
“I saw two separate school systems within OPS at an early age,” he said.
Wayne said OPS should reinvest in Nathan Hale and turn it into “an entirely different school,” similar to the design at Saddlebrook Joint Facility. “We go in there, and we gut it.”
The board should also invest in Northwest to provide kids with vocational skills, he said.
Candidates on the issues
What role should the school board play in helping OPS narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and other students?
JILL BROWN: It's my belief and expectation that the board will take the lead in identifying these challenges and working actively with the school administration, teachers and parents to overcome them. The board needs to help OPS look both within the system as well as outside the system and challenge institutionalized racism and discrimination that exists in creating the achievement gap.
JUSTIN WAYNE: The Board must provide a better infrastructure to support its students and teachers by developing a sound data-driven strategic plan with benchmarks and measurable goals/objectives. The board should seek policies that create partnerships with nonprofits/ community groups to provide wrap-around services. The board must also ensure every classroom should have a high quality teacher. Every child should have access to a high quality education not by chance (the chance your child gets a great teacher), not by lottery (the hope your child gets into a magnet school), not by privilege (the ability to send your kid to private school), but by right.
What leadership qualities would you bring to the OPS board and what experiences are they based on?
JILL BROWN: I am a developer. As an educator and a psychologist by training I see the potential in others and work to help form that. I would prove to be an active collaborator and facilitator on the board. I also have specific skills in quantitative and qualitative research as well as program evaluation that would serve the board and school district well.
JUSTIN WAYNE: I am a proud OPS product, Creighton alumni, and Creighton School of Law graduate. I attended Hartman Elementary, then King Science Center, and graduated from Northwest High School. As an assistant director at Union Pacific Railroad labor relations, I have learned to be a consensus builder and fiscally responsible. I am the president of Midwest Trailblazers youth program, and am an active member in numerous community organizations. I also help raised over $1 million for St. Jude's Children Research Hospital. My experiences helped me understand the need for transparency, need to be data-driven, and developed me as a leader to serve on the OPS Board.
How well is OPS preparing its graduates for the working world? Is it a high priority to improve this area? Why?
JILL BROWN: There are great opportunities and plenty of examples of success of OPS graduates in the workforce. Nevertheless one only needs to look at the difficulties in retaining and graduating some of our at risk students to highlight the work that needs to be done to help prepare that population for an active role in Omaha's vibrant and growing economy.
JUSTIN WAYNE: It is estimated that 70 percent to 75 percent of OPS high school graduates need remedial classed before attending community college. These students have to spend money and time to re-learn basic skills — reading, writing and math — first before they could begin college courses. This is unacceptable. This has to be a high priority for OPS in the future. OPS must do more than provide education; it must produce educated and productive people. I want OPS to provide a world-class education for all of our children.
Do you think OPS needs major changes or minor tweaking as it strives to become the best district it can be? Briefly describe those changes or tweaks.
JILL BROWN: Clearly the makeup and structure the board itself needed significant change. Changes are also called for in the way we respond to this achievement gap and the difficulties of graduating a significant portion of our student body. Just refining and implementing a more comprehensive education program would be one such major change. Looking at creative ways of supporting teachers innovations in the classroom is also another area that is clearly in need of further development.
JUSTIN WAYNE: We need to ensure that teachers can be successful in the classroom, that principals are enabled to affect change where it is needed, and the community is able to hold elected officials and the school administration accountable to its district wide goals. Therefore, within the next two years, we will: Increase academic achievement for all students; Create a data-driven strategic plan with benchmarks and measureable goals/objectives; Empower teachers and develop leadership within our schools to maximize the growth and development of their students; create a culture of accountability, fiscal responsibility and transparency.
Do you think the public has confidence in the OPS board? If yes, then how will you help maintain that confidence? If no, then what would you do to restore it?
JILL BROWN: Obviously the very nature of this election indicates a loss of confidence that the public has in our school board. I would advocate for work for transparency in our decision-making and the distillation of our vision and goals throughout the entire enterprise. I also have a clear vision that the relationship between the school and the community needs to be a vibrant open one that allows for innovation that communities deem important.
JUSTIN WAYNE: No. I believe through the development of a sound data-driven strategic plan with benchmarks and measureable goals/objectives we will engage the community and restore creditability, transparency, and fiscal responsibility to OPS. By engaging parents, business leaders, and other stakeholders, and bringing more decision-making and flexibility to the schools themselves, we will create a public system that all parents can feel good about. In order to strengthen our school system and our community, we have to build from within. That starts with great neighborhood schools.
How would you describe the proper relationship between the school board and the superintendent, and how much autonomy should new Superintendent Mark Evans have?
JILL BROWN: To be a success, a superintendent needs a great deal of autonomy in the form of support and guidance. A superintendent that understands clearly the needs of the community and the vision of the school district will be an effective one. That is the board's responsibility to provide that vision and careful oversight.
JUSTIN WAYNE: It is crucial that the board find a clear and workable balance between board and superintendent functions, while maintaining autonomy and flexibility. I firmly believe the adults closest to the students have the best information and motivation to make decisions. Therefore, I am in favor of teachers, principals and the superintendent autonomy and individual authority. It should be noted that with autonomy and individual authority comes accountability—they go hand and hand.