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 final two Subdistrict 5 candidates.
Lou Ann Goding
Occupation: self-employed as a part-time financial consultant
Public offices held: None
Education: Bachelor of Science in accounting from Bob Jones University, 1986
Family: Married, three children
With more than 25 years' experience in the business world, Lou Ann Goding says she can bring critical thinking and financial savvy to the Omaha school board.
As an OPS parent, classroom volunteer and a two-term PTA president, she says she also has a good perspective on its students from the elementary to high school level and knows where student achievement can go.
“I'm a longtime supporter of OPS,” said Goding, now a part-time, self-employed financial consultant who oversees financial statements for local clients. “I want to see the district use taxpayer money in the most efficient ways to improve student achievement.”
In addition to serving as PTA president at one large OPS elementary school, Goding also has been involved in various volunteer roles at three others. Her three sons all attend OPS schools; two are at Omaha Central High School.
“You develop a greater passion for students and you see the potential that this district has when you've been in those buildings,” she said.
Goding sits on the Children's Hospital Friends board and served on the Fontenelle Forest Guild board from 2006 to 2011. She has been a co-chairwoman of annual fundraising events for both the Fontenelle Nature Association and the nonprofit group Completely Kids.
She said she has been encouraged by friends and family to run for the board and has received financial support from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
“I think we can make (Omaha) a better city if we improve our school district,” she said.
Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum
Occupation: Human resources professional and substitute teacher
Public offices held: Elected to two terms on Sanitary and Improvement District 370, Omaha school board since January
Education: Bachelor of arts, University of Nebraska at Kearney; master of business administration, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Family: Married with two children
Faith: Attends Temple Israel
While other candidates talk about business experience, Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum stresses that she has both experience in business and the classroom.
She's also an incumbent, with two months' service on the board. Kirshenbaum was sworn in in January after defeating former State Sen. Pat Bourne in November for the open seat representing northwest Omaha.
Kirshenbaum said she has put her master of business administration degree to work in her current position, working part time in human resources at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, on budgeting, planning and employee policies.
When a $500,000 spending proposal came to the school board, she said, she asked what the district was proposing to cut for that amount. “Those are questions that automatically come up in my head,” said Kirshenbaum, 40.
She also has worked as an OPS substitute teacher since 2009. While she hasn't taught for OPS since December, she has spent time in most of the district's middle and high schools. She knows what questions to ask regarding classroom matters, too.
“You are seeing things that maybe someone implemented and it was a great theory ... but maybe we need to change this to make it work for us,” she said.
Kirshenbaum, a Burke High School graduate with two children in OPS schools, said some may say the district needs a quick fix. But raising student achievement takes hard work, visionary building leadership and effective teachers.
“I want children to improve their achievement,” she said. “I know OPS can do better. I know we can continue to improve.”
What role should the school board play in helping OPS narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and other students?
Goding: The board will need to work closely with the superintendent to develop policies that prepare all of our youngest students for kindergarten, re-evaluate returning to neighborhood elementary schools versus busing, determine the need for additional schools to effectively service our students, give building principals ownership and accountability for program development that meets the unique needs of their attendance area, ensure teachers are prepared to deliver the level of teaching that results in each child reaching their own personal ceiling. We also need to reach out to experts to find and implement best practices used elsewhere.
Kirshenbaum: The role of the school board is to hire a superintendent, evaluate the superintendent and set policy. Good management by the superintendent requires current and up-to-date policies that are clear and critical to the success of the district. When changing or implementing new policy, proactive communication by the board is key to good policy.
Evaluation of the superintendent is based on policy set by the board and the shared vision of both the board and the superintendent. The school board will evaluate the superintendent on his ability to raise student achievement. The school board can expect feedback during the superintendent's report at each board meeting regarding improvement in student achievement.
What leadership qualities would you bring to the OPS board, and what experiences are they based on?
Goding: I would bring analytical and critical thinking skills to the board, ensuring the policy focus is based on the district's strategic plan. I would also bring the ability to understand financial and budgetary issues OPS must deal with to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars. My management skills will allow me to provide valuable guidance when evaluating the effectiveness of OPS support functions. I have 25 years experience in the business world, including audit manager in a worldwide accounting firm and private industry experience in accounting, finance and management. As demonstrated by my tenure as a PTA president, I am a consensus builder and help organizations focus on achieving their goals.
Kirshenbaum: I am a leader who sees the big picture. What should the Omaha Public Schools look like in five years? If the Omaha community doesn't have strong public schools, Omaha is adversely affected.
My leadership qualities include intelligence, common sense, high expectations, listening to others, obtaining information and the ability to ask critical questions. I will lead the school board to accomplish its vision, mission, values, objectives, strategies and goals while proactively communicating with board members and the OPS community.
It's not just my business and financial experiences along with an MBA degree that sets me apart, I also have OPS teaching experience. Good management processes combined with effective teaching practices has prepared me to be a well qualified candidate for the school board.
How well is OPS preparing its graduates for the working world? Is it a high priority to improve this area? Why?
Goding: Preparing students to be productive members of society should be one of the highest priorities of the district. There are definitely students within OPS who are well prepared to enter college or to enter the working world. With that said, we should be making every effort to expand career development opportunities for non-college bound students, ensure that our alternative education programs are equipped to effectively counsel and provide support to our students who are struggling the most, and ensure that coursework at every grade level pushes each student to their highest level. We must actively seek innovative approaches that prepare our graduates for today's workplace.
Kirshenbaum: OPS can always improve in preparing its graduates for the working world. The working world is changing and many jobs that our grandparents held are no longer here. Jobs of today were unheard of 20 years ago. OPS preparation must align with the changes. What technological skills are needed for today's working world? What knowledge, skills and abilities are needed for college and for employment? We need to research this question with help from colleges and the business community. I believe this topic is a high priority because we want the children in the community to succeed, and we want a high return for the taxpayers.
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.
Goding: We are already in the process of major changes. We will soon have a new superintendent to provide leadership of our operations. We have a reduced board with the possibility of many new faces about to take over the policy-making responsibilities of the district. Additional change will be inevitable as an updated strategic plan is developed to address the gap in student achievement and ultimately the effective use of resources to reach the district's goals. I envision more major change as the new board and the superintendent assess the gap between where we are and where we want to go.
Kirshenbaum: After being newly elected to the board and serving for the last two months, I have seen what changes need to take place to become a better district. Processes that are in place must have a follow-through and follow-up factor. For example, raising student achievement in a school requires visionary leadership and positive student behavior in the building. Exemplary school leaders need to be brought into the plan for implementation. If no one is following through to ensure the leadership is strong and to ensure that the school has consistent positive student behavior, then the district will not improve. Student achievement will only improve with strong local leadership.
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?
Goding: I believe the numerous news stories regarding financial surprises, inaccurate reporting, policies that have resulted in concerns over student safety, and a breakdown in professional communication between board members have greatly eroded public confidence. We need to ensure that the OPS board provides a professional approach to establishing and directing the policies of the district.
I believe that the OPS mission statement and ultimately an updated strategic plan should represent the foundation on which all governance is based. Proposals brought to the board must be accretive in achieving these goals. Proposals need to be fact-based and then vetted by the board. Above all we need greater transparency, better communication and more accountability in order to restore confidence in the board.
Kirshenbaum: While on the 2012 campaign for the OPS school board, the public told me how upset they were with the Dr. Sebring scenario, the million-dollar contract and other board decisions. Gaining confidence takes trust. The public will trust a board that uses common sense, has good leadership and is honest, competent, transparent and accountable. The Nebraska Association of School Boards training handbook stresses “vision, standards, assessment, accountability, alignment, climate and culture, collaborative relationships and continuous improvement.” I agree with these items and am eager to continue this service. The public will see my dedication to these ideals in a straightforward manner as a board member.
How would you describe the proper relationship between the school board and the superintendent, and how much autonomy should Superintendent Mark Evans have?
Goding: The school board's role is to set policy for the district and then hold the superintendent responsible for implementing those policies. Mark Evans will essentially become the CEO of the district. His role is to provide leadership in managing the district's operations, and he should have broad autonomy in seeking to achieve the agreed upon objectives. He will be responsible for bringing fact-based proposals to the board, reviewing methodologies for effectiveness and creating an environment where there is movement toward the ultimate goal of higher student achievement.
Kirshenbaum: The relationship between the school board and the superintendent is a relationship with checks and balances. The school board makes policy, and the superintendent follows those policies in his management of the district. The board's policies give direction to the superintendent.
The superintendent will have autonomy to manage the district. The board should not micromanage the superintendent. When the board evaluates the superintendent, the board will be looking for evidence of improved student achievement, evidence of financial efficiencies and evidence of good management. The superintendent will collaborate with the board and use policy as his map to improve the district.