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Near the top of the “to-do” list for the new board of the Omaha Public Schools: creating a long-overdue strategic plan.
Within weeks of starting work, the nine OPS board members elected in the April 2 primary and May 14 general elections will start discussing what they want to be the priority goals for the state's largest school district.
They'll listen to input from the community and work with incoming Superintendent Mark Evans and his staff to outline strategies for meeting those goals. And they'll come up with ways to measure whether those efforts are successful.
It's a process adopted by most big-city school districts, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington, D.C. Done correctly, he said, it makes a huge difference.
“A strategic plan starting with the board is critical for a sense of direction, a sense of community ownership, of purpose, of transparency — and ultimately for assuring accountability,” Casserly said.
But it's something OPS has been lacking.
“It's been a long time since we've engaged in a comprehensive, communitywide, strategic planning process,” said OPS interim Superintendent Virginia Moon. “This will be a good time to do it.”
Moon said the last time OPS pursued such an approach was in the late 1990s, as the district moved toward ending mandatory busing and proposed a $254 million bond issue, which voters approved in 1999.
After that, public goal-setting fell by the wayside as OPS became embroiled in a series of controversial developments, including its lawsuit over state education funding, its “one city, one school district” attempt to take over land and students from neighboring districts, and the Nebraska Legislature's creation of a Learning Community to share resources among the 11 districts in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
To be sure, OPS hasn't ignored planning entirely. Officials at individual schools and at the district level set goals and develop strategies.
But those efforts aren't the same as a comprehensive, board-approved plan with input from the broader OPS community.
For example, when The World-Herald asked district officials about a strategic plan a year ago, they produced a working document that had been crafted by administrators to guide their efforts. But that plan hadn't even been shown to the school board, let alone shared with the public.
Since then, the OPS board has been moving toward creating a proper strategic plan. The effort was slowed after its superintendent-to-be, Nancy Sebring, had to resign last June before she even started work in Omaha. That forced the board to focus mainly on hiring a new superintendent, which it did in December by selecting Mark Evans.
Evans, who currently heads the school district in Andover, Kan., will start his Omaha job in July. But he's already preparing for the Omaha post, including consulting with Moon about preparations for the new strategic plan.
Moon said OPS officials are laying the groundwork by gathering data and conducting audits of certain aspects of district operations, from communications to curriculum and instruction.
Sometime this spring, the current OPS board is likely to hire an outside company to help coordinate the planning effort, such as running discussion workshops for the new board and collecting input from staff members and the public during the summer.
The plan itself probably will be developed this fall, with Evans and his staff outlining specific strategies for meeting the district's top goals.
Ideally, Moon said, the new board can approve the final plan by December. That way, it can be used in making decisions for the 2014-15 school budget.
Moon said the planning process can help newcomer Evans and the newly elected board get up to speed on OPS operations and build relationships with each other outside the structured setting of formal board meetings. No matter how the elections turn out, no more than three of the nine board members will have been in office before this year.
“The process of planning together builds camaraderie, builds relationships and a deeper understanding of how to move forward,” Moon said. “You begin to understand how we work as individuals, how we talk about complicated issues in a nonconfrontational way.”
Evans said he is committed to having a plan that sets out the overall vision for OPS and aligns specific strategies to priority goals. That way, he said, his administration and the board can make sure they devote the most attention and resources to the highest priorities.
He also said it is important to have annual benchmarks to assess whether the district is making progress toward those goals.
“You can't bite off and eat the whole apple in one year,” Evans said. “But did we have a good year, and did we meet those goals?”
Even if the district falls short of a goal, he said, the annual assessment is valuable because it forces school officials to figure out why. Was the strategy implemented well? Is the policy flawed? Or does it just need more time to work?
“I see myself as accountable to the board in meeting measurable targets,” he said.
Having a plan that requires that accountability will be a big change for OPS, although the school board has been moving in that direction. In November 2011, as part of its superintendent hiring effort, board members met to brainstorm their vision for the district.
Casserly, from the Great City Schools group, served as facilitator for that meeting and prodded the OPS board to tie district goals to measurable performance indicators, something it hadn't been doing.
Interviewed last week, Casserly emphasized that a strategic plan is needed to build a good relationship between a district and its community.
“Without a clearly articulated direction,” he said, “it's not entirely clear to the community where you're going and why, and what it is they should expect, and what kinds of results might be obtained, and how (the board) holds people responsible for the outcomes.”
Evans anticipates that the new OPS strategic plan will lead to stronger public support.
In part, he said, that's because the district will consider community input in creating the plan. In addition, he said, citizens will see more clearly how the district is trying to reach those goals, and they'll know the results are being measured.
“Once we create that clarity,” Evans said, “then we're accountable to it.”
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