The time for finger-pointing is over, Omaha school board incumbent Justin Wayne says.
“This election is about moving forward,” said Wayne, a labor relations attorney for Union Pacific Railroad elected in 2010.
Some longtime board members have chafed at his efforts over the past two years, but they have cemented his role as a change agent.
Critics accused him of trying to elbow in his ideas, and challenger Jill Brown says she offers change of a different kind.
Brown, an associate professor of developmental psychology at Creighton University, said the board needs “true collaborators” who work together and have a shared vision.
“That's one thing that I know I can do better than my opponent,” she said. “There needs to be a spirit of working together and not being a lone reformer.”
The two candidates are vying in Subdistrict 4, the northernmost area of the Omaha Public Schools, north of Maple Street, which includes Northwest High School.
Wayne's friction with several longtime board members, some now off the board, began with his request for an OPS employee organizational chart. He tried unsuccessfully to remove Freddie Gray as board president over the Nancy Sebring affair. Gray later resigned from the board. He made more waves pushing to take proposals on a new legal firm for the district and supporting lawmakers' efforts to shrink the size of the board.
Wayne has backing from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Omaha Education Association, support he said refutes the notion that he's alone in his efforts.
For years, business people felt shut out of district affairs and teachers were saying their voices weren't being heard, he said.
His priorities are the same as when he first ran for the board: accountability, fiscal responsibility, community engagement, reinvesting in neighborhood schools, strategic planning, transparency.
As president and a coach for the Midwest Trailblazers youth program, which offers athletics and mentoring for 400 kids, Wayne said he hears firsthand the concerns of parents and kids. Parents say some teachers can't control their classrooms because the administration doesn't support them. Some students need to be in an alternative school, he said.
“We can't sacrifice 20 because one kid doesn't want to control himself in the classroom,” he said.
The district must develop an “early warning system” to identify children at risk of failure by third grade and intervene, instead of waiting until they're in high school, he said.
Wayne said the district should consider acquiring the former Gregg Young Chevrolet property near Northwest High School to offer career education such as mechanical shop and welding.
“Why couldn't (students) attend a Northwest High School, do their math, English and writing classes in the morning, eat lunch, and after lunch go across the street to that place and learn to be a mechanic or learn how to weld?” he said.
Brown said she wants to strengthen the relationship among communities, schools and parents.
“Going door to door, talking to people, people are disappointed in their neighborhood schools,” she said.
“They really deeply want a neighborhood school that they feel connected to, that they feel part of, that they feel very happy to leave their prize possession for eight hours a day.”
People want positive leadership they can count on, she said. They want transparency, but that doesn't just mean doing business in the open, she said. “It's about creating consensus and shared beliefs about what's the best way to move OPS forward and reduce the achievement gap.”
Although people want reform, she doesn't see a need for radical change, she said.
“OPS is not a failed district,” she said. “OPS has so much potential, and it has so many positive things happening in it, that the change that needs to happen has to be guided by best practices.”
Brown said the district has to focus on early childhood education, the years before kindergarten that are crucial to brain development.
“I think this is the way to close the achievement gap,” she said. “It's not about truancy laws entirely; it's not about investing in after-school programs entirely. It's about getting parents and kids involved in a different way before they start school.”
The social and emotional development gained will help children make better choices later, she said.
Early childhood education should be targeted to students at risk, not universal or mandatory, she said.
The district must encourage teachers to innovate in the classroom, Brown said.
“There's obviously state and federal mandates that are keeping teaching tied to testing,” she said. “But if we don't allow innovation in the classroom, not only are our highest quality teachers going to leave, but our students don't learn.”
As a researcher, she said, she can help the district use data effectively.
“I teach research methods and statistics,” she said. “I understand how data works.”
Contact the writer:
Occupation: Assistant professor, psychology
Public offices held: None
Education: Doctorate, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Family: Married, five daughters
Justin T. Wayne
Occupation: Assistant director of labor relations at Union Pacific Railroad
Public offices held: OPS board
Education: Bachelor of Science in business administration, Juris Doctor, both at Creighton
Family: Married, one daughter
Q&A with the candidates
The World-Herald is providing interviews with candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board, asking them for their views on several issues facing the district. For other coverage of this and other school board races, check omaha.com/ops.
Should OPS increase career education offerings and, if so, how? With a new technical high school, more career-education classes at each high school or other ways?
Brown: Schools should offer innovative career education opportunities but make sure all students are proficient in reading, writing and math. Standards should not be lowered. The district should encourage partnerships with businesses to provide students with apprenticeships.
Wayne: Schools should provide alternatives to the college pathway. Northwest High School could serve as a site for new career offerings. A former car dealership nearby could be acquired for hands-on training. Kids could attend the school for core academics in the morning and after lunch learn to be a mechanic or welder.
Reputations and enrollment have suffered at some OPS high schools. How do you go about restoring those that are lacking and begin balancing enrollment at OPS high schools?
Brown: The magnet school label is meaningless to many parents. The way to improve the public perception of certain schools is to make them better. The district should set simple, clear goals for improvement. An example might be that every fourth-grader reads at a fourth-grade level. The district could also ask students how to improve schools.
Wayne: To build up all high school campuses, the district must make sure resources are distributed equally. The district should ask the community what it wants from those schools and provide programs and services that will attract kids. The district should look at how bus service changes could make neighborhood schools more attractive.
When test scores at a school are far below the district average, is it appropriate to replace the principal or other staff?
Brown: The district should be cautious about basing removal on test scores. The achievement gap is institutional and generational.
Wayne: Removal is appropriate in some cases, but the decision must take into account the totality of the circumstances including student growth on test scores. If the district assigns a principal to a tough school, then the district must acknowledge that.
Should teachers be paid extra — bonuses — when students score well on standardized tests?
Brown: Teachers are intrinsically motivated so bonuses may not be the best incentive. She is open to explore merit pay, but rewards should not be based solely on test scores but on peer evaluations and other measures. To get good teachers, the district must compensate them.
Wayne: The district should have a conversation on merit pay, but adoption would have to depend on the details. If a merit system were devised, it must be “owned by the teachers.” OPS needs to increase base teacher pay to reflect the difficulty of teaching in an urban district.
The No Child Left Behind Act has focused attention and resources on the lowest-achieving students. How would you ensure that other students aren't overlooked?
Brown: The state has to back off on standardized testing, otherwise teachers will continue to focus efforts on low-achieving kids who can be raised to proficient. The district should also develop strategies to make sure other students are served.
Wayne: The district must take an approach where all kids are being served. Every student in every classroom deserves a high quality, effective teacher.
Should the district set a minimum grade-point average for students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities?
Brown: Not entirely against it but does not see a reason for it. There's no evidence that setting a minimum GPA would improve academic achievement. Wants to know how many kids would be excluded before adopting the policy.
Wayne: Proposed the idea of a minimum GPA. He said the key is being able to phase it in over a three- or four-year period so students are treated fairly.