On Tuesday was the last 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 7-9.
Don't know what district you're in? Need to find your polling place? Go to www.votedouglascounty.com and fill in the “find your polling place” box.
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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. To find more information about the candidates and the election, go to omaha.com/ops.
Subdistrict 7: Sex ed, standardized tests
How much sex education is enough — and how much standardized testing is too much — were among the questions tossed at school board candidates in subdistrict 7 Tuesday night.
An audience member at the Norris Middle School forum asked candidates their opinion of Legislative Bill 619, which would require public schools to provide more comprehensive education about sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
Andy Allen, a computer technician for Lockheed Martin, said that should be a local decision.
“Our schools need to reflect what our local community needs and what are morals and ethics here are,” he said.
He said he would ask experts, including the County Health Department, for recommendations before deciding what more could be done.
Danyelle Baratta, a “program navigator” for the reEnergize program, said STD rates are “concerning.”
“My feeling on sex education in the schools is that we should provide more education rather than less,” she said.
Education should go beyond abstinence to prepare students for what they will deal with in relationships, how to protect themselves, “that they own themselves and that they can say no,” she said.
Katie Underwood, engineer for Olsson Associates, said: “I do think that the more information the better especially for our students who don't get some of this information at home.”
A teacher in the audience expressed concern that standardized testing threatens to crowd out the artistic aspects of teaching.
Allen said, “You've got to have some way of judging, are kids progressing, are they learning.”
But with state and federal demands for testing “you're in a position where you're preparing kids to take the next test. That is a problem.”
Underwood said “tests are a necessary evil.”
“I don't agree with teaching to the test. I think that there needs to be a supportive classroom setting for kids success. And hopefully out of that comes good test results so we have measurable data to build on.”
Baratta said tests “are tools to tell us where our students are at a particular time.”
But tests should make sense, and questions should be designed to elicit useful information, she said.
A questioner wanted to know the candidates' views of teachers unions and the ways the district evaluates teacher performance.
Baratta said she supports collective bargaining and that teachers should have a voice in how evaluations are designed.
“Obviously there has to be some sort of evaluation process, but it needs to serve the purpose of what we're trying to do,” she said. “I don't think we can say test scores are a good single evaluation method.”
Allen said the OPS teachers union has been a benefit to the district, providing fair representation to their members and helping teachers get better.
He said the union had not been “overbearing” in negotiating contracts.
Underwood called the union “strong and well-represented” with a mission of educating kids.
Evaluations must take a “multi-pronged approach,” she said.
“There should be input from the parents, students, other teachers as well as self-reflection. I think when you ask someone to evaluate themselves, you get a really good result, and goals for teachers can be developed out of that.” — Staff writer Joe Dejka
Subdistrict 8: Raising student achievement
Teaching is job No. 1 for any school district. With nearly 50,000 students, that job looms particularly large for the Omaha Public Schools.
Six candidates seeking to represent Subdistrict 8 on the Omaha school board all had a slightly different take Tuesday on what the district needs to do to raise student achievement. The candidates spoke at a forum at Bryan High School.
Lacey Merica, a Bryan graduate who now works as a claims adjustor, said the district needs to ensure an equitable distribution of resources among schools and make sure students come ready to learn.
“We need to focus on individual student achievement and not just teaching to the test,” said Merica, who has worked for State Sen. Heath Mello.
Mark Walenz, chief engineer for a midtown hotel, said the district needs to work with parents and the community, including programs such as Avenue Scholars that help students transition to college and careers. It needs to encourage them “in whatever they want to do,” said Walenz, who also teaches classes in heating and air conditioning.
Meg Cordes, an associate nurse manager at the Nebraska Medical Center, said it's “important to challenge all students at whatever levels” they're at. Three of her four sons have graduated from Bryan. The oldest was the class valedictorian but entered college with fewer college credits than many of his peers.
William Forsee, a retired biology teacher who spent five of his 37 years in teaching at Burke High School, once taught a freshman there who had advanced despite not knowing how to read. Addressing such lapses will help, said Forsee, who served two years on the Metropolitan Community College Board. So will early childhood education.
Juliana Garza, who has spent 12 years in education programs for the Latino Center of the Midlands, said the district needs to establish a “clearer path” to let service providers in mental health and other areas come in to schools and to get parents more engaged.
Eugene Hoffmann, who retired with 37 years' active and civilian service with the Air Force, said the district first needs to define what students should achieve. Then it needs to identify the kind of degree they can earn. In his high school in New York, students could graduate with different degrees based on their career paths.
The candidates also were asked to outline how they see the board's role. Most said the board should set policies for the superintendent to carry out. But an audience member also asked how the candidates would measure their success if elected.
Garza said the best role she could play would be as an advocate for families. “To me, the most important thing is to listen,” she said.
Hoffmann said his measure would be that every student received a diploma or a GED equivalent.
Merica said her indicators of success would include whether students are meeting their goals and whether the board is getting engagement and feedback — and how much such measures improved.
Walenz said his measure of success would be that students are meeting the goals the district sets and that the public is confident in the direction the board is setting.
Cordes said she would gauge her success by whether students are achieving what they're meant to achieve, teachers are impacting students and families are engaged.
Forsee said he would work to expand dual enrollment programs, as he did on the Metro board. “I think we're underserving our students,” he said. — Staff writer Julie Anderson
Subdistrict 9: Learning Community's value, charter schools
A scheduled four-person forum turned into a two-person debate at South High School on Tuesday.
Two of the four Omaha school board candidates in Subdistrict 9 showed up.
But incumbent Sarah Brumfield and challenger Bill Gaughan differed on a few issues facing OPS, including how to expand science and math class time, the Learning Community's value, charter schools and whether students should have to maintain a minimum grade-point average to participate in extracurricular activities.
Both candidates agreed that OPS should change its curriculum to include more classes about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, so kids are prepared to enter those career fields.
To make more time for the STEM courses, Gaughan said, OPS should consider giving less time to art or theater.
“I'm not sure theater is going to get kids where they want to be in life,” said Gaughan, who studied journalism and communications in college and is retired from the phone company.
Brumfield, who has been on the board since January, said she would look throughout the school day to find time for more STEM courses or might extend the school day.
Taking classes such as theater or other non-STEM courses can help students in other ways, she said. “It makes you a better person as a whole to have other things in your life,” she said.
Earlier in the forum, both candidates said OPS should look at having a longer school year.
On the Learning Community, Gaughan said it's an additional resource for OPS teachers and helps the district. “The Learning Community, No. 1, has done a superb job in trying to help OPS,” he said.
The Learning Community is an educational cooperative created by state lawmakers to improve academic achievement by disadvantaged kids in Douglas and Sarpy Counties and part of Washington County.
Brumfield said the government entity is a good concept but could be improved. “I don't think it's being enacted the way it should be,” she said.
All parents should have the right to send their children to charter schools, Gaughan said.
A recent effort to establish Omaha charter schools failed in the Nebraska Legislature.
The schools would have been chartered by the State Board of Education and operated outside local school board control. They would have received public funds from the students' home districts.
Brumfield said the metro area could expand its school choices even more instead of allowing charter schools.
An audience member asked the candidates what they thought of making students maintain a minimum grade-point average to participate in extracurricular activities. A board committee discussed the idea Monday.
Brumfield said she favored it. Currently, she said, some OPS students could have about a D average and still participate.
“They're not putting in the extra effort needed,” she said.
Gaughan said some students might be doing their best and but still might not meet a minimum grade-point average.
“I don't think that's fair to kids,” he said. “That's asking a little too much.”
About 25 people attended the forum. — Staff writer Jonathon Braden