The World-Herald asked candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board for their views on several issues facing the district.
OPS BOARD ELECTION: Voters in the Omaha Public Schools district will decide the makeup of a new nine-member school board, starting with the April 2 primary election. Each subdistrict has at least three candidates in the nonpartisan races; only two in each subdistrict will advance to the May 14 general election.
Occupation: Retired teacher
Public offices held: Sanitary and Improvement District board, Copper Creek addition; Metro Community College board of governors
Education: Graduate of Clinton, Iowa, High School; associate degree, Eastern Iowa Community College, 1969; Bachelor of Science, University of Northern Iowa, 1972; Master of Science, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1978
Family: married, two children
A desire to expand opportunities for students was among the factors that motivated William Forsee to run for the Omaha school board in Subdistrict 8.
A retired biology teacher with 37 years of classroom experience, he served two years on the Metropolitan Community College board. There, he began working with state lawmakers to try to increase dual high school and college enrollment options for students, an effort he would continue if elected.
Forsee spent 30 years as a teacher at Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln High. In Iowa, he said, some students graduated from high school with an associate degree. There's no clear pathway for that in Nebraska. He said expanding such options would be a way to get students started on college, vocational school or two-year degrees. It could help retain students who might otherwise lose interest and drop out.
Forsee, who taught for five years at Burke High School after retiring in Iowa, said he also advocates for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs, because they're linked to future jobs. North High School has a great program, he said, but the board should look to expand such opportunities.
Forsee, 64, said he also would bring his classroom experience to efforts to keep good teachers.
He was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Metro board in 2010. He ran unsuccessfully for election to the board last fall. He said the college's president contacted him about a school board bid. Both his son and daughter graduated from Bryan High School. While on the Metro board, he established an Internet safety program at the college to train adults to protect children from online predators. Lacey Merica
Occupation: Claims adjuster
Public offices held: None
Education: Master of Business Administration, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2011; Bachelor of Science in biological sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2006; Omaha Bryan High graduate, 2001
Family: Single, no children
Lacey Merica said she would bring a number of different perspectives to the Omaha school board if elected to represent Subdistrict 8.
She's a former OPS student, from kindergarten through her 2001 graduation from Bryan High School. Her mom is an OPS teacher.
Now she's a homeowner and a taxpayer. She's seen how decisions and policies affect students, staff and taxpayers. As a single person with no children, she said, she also recognizes the importance of making sure people who don't have children in the schools stay involved.
As an administrative aide for State Sen. Heath Mello, she saw how decisions were made in the Nebraska Legislature and how information lawmakers received about schools could affect decisions. It's important to form relationships with lawmakers, she said, “so that when issues come up, they don't automatically have a negative perception of the school district.”
Merica now works as a claims adjuster for Applied Underwriters. She applied for the South Omaha and Bellevue seat in 2010 when it became vacant. Barbara Velazquez was selected to fill the seat and then elected that fall. Velazquez did not file for re-election.
Merica said she has been emphasizing the importance of communicating with government and the business community about partnership opportunities.
Part of her job as a claims adjuster, she said, is to tailor information for different groups.
“The school board has a similar role,” she said. “We may have information that needs to go to parents, government officials and business people, but they may need to get it via a different vehicle or in a different way.”
What role should the school board play in helping OPS narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and other students?
Forsee: The idea that all schools are identical and the problems are all the same is a common misconception. The problems at Burke High School, with services to the deaf students are unique to Burke; South High School with a large Hispanic Community needs greater ELL services. The OPS board needs to evaluate each school and gear the education of the student at a particular school to meet the needs of that population.
Merica: The OPS school board should have an active role in helping narrow the achievement gap. The board must ensure adequate and equitable distribution of funding and resources across the district. It also must make sure OPS is able to recruit, hire, and retain the most qualified, effective teachers for its classrooms. The board must look for creative solutions to address the issues facing our children outside the classroom, as these often affect a child's ability to learn.
What leadership qualities would you bring to the OPS board and what experiences are they based on?
Forsee: The leadership qualities I would offer to bring to the OPS Board centers around 37 years of teaching. My experience as a member of Metro Community College Board is also valuable. I am experienced with the working with an educational board and the role they play. Setting a positive learning environment for the students and staff often starts with a positive educational board. I have also worked closely with State Legislators to expand “dual enrollment” opportunities for high school students and will continue to address the expansion if elected to the OPS board.
Merica: Having worked in both the business world and state legislature, I have learned the importance of bringing people from different viewpoints together to work towards common goals. In groups, I look for points of agreement and use those to build consensus. As an OPS graduate, homeowner, lifelong South Omaha resident, and child of an OPS teacher, I have been able to see the district through multiple viewpoints. This enables me to evaluate proposals, and how those proposals would impact the multiple groups that are vital to our students' success.
How well is OPS preparing its graduates for the working world? Is it a high priority to improve this area? Why?
Forsee: Our graduates are prepared for the working world. However there are many opportunities in this area, and the way we could approach this by setting up more opportunities for the students. Additional career academies, more vocational programs, and increase the dual enrollment programs. The State of Nebraska could look to programs in the surrounding areas and the different pathways those students have in earning college credit. I know OPS could become a leader in this endeavor, since we already have a great magnet program, which would dovetail nicely with any college program.
Merica: I believe OPS needs to forge strong connections with higher education institutions, trades, and major Omaha employers to ensure that what students are learning in the classroom gives them the knowledge they need to exceed in the post-high school world. An example of this is the transportation, distribution and logistics program at Bryan High. Our community must work together to solve these problems and ensure success for all OPS graduates.
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.
Forsee: I am not running to bring about any major changes to the OPS board. I do feel that the OPS board should expand learning opportunities for our students, whether it is in the vocational, technical or academic. There is a great movement in this nation to expand STEM education; this is where you will find the jobs of the future. These are the programs we as a board should be looking to expand. I would also like to find a way to improve the teacher to student ratio. This would allow more one on one time between teacher and student, which is a benefit for the student and teacher.
Merica: OPS is a good school district, but all things require review and, if needed, change, over time. Rather than strict reliance on standardized test scores, OPS needs to measure effectiveness of teachers and programs by looking at individual student progress. Even the brightest students sometimes struggle with standardized testing, and these tests often do not measure the vast progress an individual student may make over the course of the school year. Additionally, the OPS board must make sure tax dollars go towards classroom instruction, not increased layers of administration or administrator retirement payouts.
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?
Forsee: Certain members of the public have no confidence in the OPS board and others have confidence that the board is doing an appropriate job in educating our students. I see a lot of challenges but I also see opportunities for the Omaha Public Schools. Any school board should be open to increasing the public confidence in the education of their students. I would be a positive influence if I were elected to the board.
Merica: Currently, OPS has a public image problem. The board must continue its recent work to increase openness and transparency. The district should harness social media to share information regarding board decisions and updates on the good things happening in OPS. If elected, I will work to start an EngageOmaha.com style website for the district, enabling teachers, students, and Omaha residents to share ideas on how to better the district and ask questions about OPS. This would enable our community to receive answers directly from OPS, and allow the district to establish communication with those it does not usually reach.
How would you describe the proper relationship between the school board and the superintendent and how much autonomy should (new) Superintendent Mark Evans have?
Forsee: The OPS board technically has one employee and that is the superintendent. The relationship is that of employer to employee and this should be a positive relationship if the Omaha school district is to run smoothly and for the benefit of the students, staff and community. The school district is an important factor when an employer is looking at whether to locate in the Omaha area. A positive impression of our schools, the more desirous the Omaha area. Thus maintaining a positive impression of the schools benefits the entire community.
Merica: The relationship between the school board and superintendent should be a system of checks and balances. Day-to-day operating decisions should be made by the superintendent, but shared with the board as needed or requested. Decisions on the overall direction of the district and other major issues should be collaborations between the superintendent and the school board, with the school board having the final vote. The school board should not serve as a rubber stamp for the superintendent or other administrators within the school district.