On Saturday was the second in a series of forums that allow voters to meet the OPS board candidates and ask them questions. This round of the events, sponsored by The World-Herald and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, covered Subdistricts 4-6.
Want to check which subdistrict you live in or which polling place you'll use? Go to http://www.votedouglascounty.com/ and enter your house number and ZIP code.
Subdistrict 4: Cultural work is necessary, candidates say
Three candidates for Omaha school board agreed Saturday that teachers need training on the cultural dynamics of teaching urban children.
Each candidate in Subdistrict 4 also gave the school board a letter grade of D for its handling of district business the past few years.
All stressed the need for strategic planning and better communication between the board and community.
An audience member raised the cultural proficiency issue during the forum at Northwest High School.
Incumbent Justin Wayne and challengers Jill Brown and Eric Ewing said they favored the training.
Ewing, a retired Navy chief petty officer and adjunct professor at Bellevue University, said teachers need more than the single human relations class required by the state for certification.
Wayne, a labor attorney for Union Pacific Railroad and president of the Midwest Trailblazers youth program, said: “This is something that has to be brought up through the teachers.”
He said when he attended Omaha Public Schools, he struggled to fill out a form asking his race because he's biracial.
Brown, associate professor of developmental psychology at Creighton University, said OPS' multicultural makeup requires it to face issues other districts don't.
She said she would definitely advocate for teacher education on multiculturalism.
Teachers need to know the students they're teaching, and they can only do that if they understand those communities, she said.
Brown said board members deserve a D for “trying but not meeting the expectations the community had.”
Wayne said the board deserved a poor grade, in part for its lack of communication and for the $39 million the district spends on busing costs with no data showing it improves achievement.
Wayne said the board, however, has made progress since he took office two years ago.
Ewing, talking about his approach to governing, said teams may have “superstar” members but if the team is losing, those members are still a part of the problem.
If re-elected, Wayne said, he would communicate better. He said when first elected, he was surprised at the negative reaction he got from other board members after requesting an organizational chart.
Brown said she would listen to other board members and collaborate.
Ewing said he would lead by example and compromise when necessary to get things done.
Asked how to address poverty as it relates to achievement, Brown said poverty is a broad community issue, affected by cultural and historic forces, including institutionalized discrimination.
The district must seek out community partners such as the Sherwood Foundation to address poverty, she said.
Ewing said addressing poverty requires not just corporate donations but a willingness of corporate people to get involved. He said it's difficult for a student with “a grumbling stomach” to focus on a test.
Wayne said poverty is a factor, but it can't be used as an excuse for low achievement.
On financial priorities, Ewing said the district must spend money wisely. He would rather spend on “the front line people than on a million-dollar buyout” — a reference to a payment to former Superintendent John Mackiel.
Wayne said the contract authorizing the payment was signed before he took office. The payment upset him as well, he said.
Brown said she would look at administrative costs and how to direct more money to the classroom. — Joe Dejka
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Subdistrict 5: Candidates see time for fresh start
Several northwest Omaha candidates for the Omaha school board stressed Saturday the restructuring of the board and the hiring of a new superintendent offer an opportunity for a fresh start for the state's largest school district.
But one audience member turned the question on its head, saying he was concerned that a lack of experience on the board — which oversees a general fund budget of nearly $500 million — might give more authority to administrators.
He asked the six Subdistrict 5 candidates — Jeff Miller, Nikki Diamantis, Lou Ann Goding, Angel Martin, Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum and Scott Zimmerman — how they would address such a steep learning curve.
The question came midway through a two-hour forum that included discussions about narrowing the Omaha Public Schools' achievement gap and the proper relationship between the school board and superintendent.
Audience members also asked about managing legal fees, discipline and the Common Core Curriculum adopted in 45 other states, among other topics.
The candidates largely went to their strengths in answering the experience question. About 75 people attended the forum at Buffett Middle School, 144th Street and Larimore Avenue.
Miller emphasized the need to elect board members with strong leadership skills. In recent years, he said, the district has had a weak board “where the administration essentially ran over the board.” He would hold monthly meetings with parents, teachers and taxpayers to foster transparency.
Zimmerman, who runs a private early childhood education center, said teachers and administrators are valuable sources of information about what they need to help students. It will take looking at the district with fresh eyes, and with students in mind. If that's the focus, the budget will fall in place.
Diamantis, a homebuilder and Realtor, said the district needs a board with strong business skills. “I think you need to take this budget apart and see where you can save money,” she said.
Lou Ann Goding, a self-employed financial consultant, said she would “quickly come up to speed” by asking questions, listening and thinking critically, just as she did while working for a public accounting firm.
Kirshenbaum, who has worked as a substitute teacher in OPS and has experience in finance, said it's important to elect people who can learn quickly. Kirshenbaum was elected to the board in November, before the restructuring.
While campaigning, she began listening to podcasts of board commmittee meetings. She's attended a state group's training session for new board members and studied the district's budget review handbook.
Martin, a freelance writer, said her experience with nonprofit groups has taught her to make programs work without a lot of resources. She would ensure district funds are “truly being invested in the future of our children.”
Another person asked what OPS should do to build a world-class system.
Martin said schools have to work with the community to raise the bar.
Miller said the district's top-down model won't work in today's changing culture but empowerment at the local level would bring results.
Zimmerman said he would divert dollars from administration to schools so they can create an atmosphere focused on the whole child.
Goding said schools need to engage each student to reach their “personal ceiling,” whether it's a trade or college.
Kirshenbaum advocated using technology to bring world-class programs to schools.
Diamantis would focus on gifted programs and community mentors. — Julie Anderson
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Subdistrict 6: Plans laid out for district's new direction
With three challengers and a longtime incumbent debating Omaha Public Schools issues, the Subdistrict 6 candidates made clear Saturday what they thought of past board decisions and in what direction the school district should go.
Incumbent Nancy Kratky addressed past OPS decisions at the forum, including the board's approval to give its former superintendent a $1 million retirement payout and the expensive bills to outside legal counsel.
The three other candidates, meanwhile, freely critiqued recent board decisions and shared what they would do differently.
The school board has a chance to start fresh, with board elections this spring and a new superintendent this summer, said Matt Scanlan, a project manager at Woerner Wire Works.
“We've got the opportunity to elect nine new school board members,” he said.
Kratky, a board member since 1995, sat next to him.
“Clearing out the whole board is not going to solve all the problems that we do have,” she said.
Barbara Daughton, a retired OPS teacher and administrator, said the district does a good job in some areas but needs to do better overall.
Joe Misiunas, a media consultant with Yellow Book, said he's running to bring business practices — such as measuring return on investment — to the board.
“I think the Omaha school board needs some new, positive board members,” he said.
The candidates almost were in agreement on what they thought about recent board decisions.
Kratky, asked what grade she would give the board for its recent work, said it should get a B or C.
“We've been doing some things that have taken us down the wrong road,” she said.
The board and OPS need to better showcase themselves to the community, she said.
Board members have had noble intentions, said Daughton, who gave the board a B or B-minus.
Misiunas gave the board a B-minus or C for how it has managed the district's finances and communication.
Scanlan said the board has failed Omaha. “As a parent, I would give the school board an F,” he said.
The board let former OPS Superintendent John Mackiel run the district with little to no oversight, he said.
Its recent actions, including being surprised by the $1 million retirement payout that was written into Mackiel's contract years ago, have dwindled his confidence in the board, Scanlan said.
The candidates also were asked what they would do to prevent a future $1 million surprise.
Misiunas said the board should increase its transparency.
Board members must be more attentive and hire an in-house attorney who could review contracts, Scanlan said. Currently, the board works almost exclusively with Baird Holm, an Omaha firm.
Kratky took some blame for the board's misstep.
“I'm really the fall guy because I'm responsible to an extent about this, and I was just as shocked as you were,” she said.
Kratky said the board's legal counsel didn't give members the full story about Mackiel's contract, even though they asked.
Earlier in the forum, she said the board's recent changes with Baird Holm, including a new agreement and new main contact at the firm, should save taxpayers money and improve the board's legal advice.
Daughton said the board should improve transparency and take careful notes on contracts.
About 40 people attended the forum at Burke High School. — Jonathon Braden
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