Candidates Lacey Merica and William Forsee bring two entirely different sets of experiences to the race to represent Subdistrict 8 on the Omaha school board.
At 29, Merica says she isn't far removed in age from the students the school district serves. But as a claims adjuster who handles workers' compensation cases, she also has professional experience in a position that requires creativity, research and problem-solving. The Bryan High School graduate is also a homeowner and a taxpayer.
“I thought I'd bring a unique voice to the school board,” she said.
Forsee, a retired biology teacher, brings 37 years' classroom experience — including five at Burke High School and 30 at Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln High. His two years on the Metropolitan Community College board, he said, have given him an understanding of how education boards work.
The district itself is a unique one, straddling South Omaha and Bellevue. Forsee advanced from the April primary after defeating the third-place challenger by a single vote, a margin that held in a mandatory recount.
Kelly Sell, a La Vista City Council member, said Forsee would bring a Sarpy County voice to the board, along with that of teacher, Metro board member and taxpayer. “He adds a very distinctive perspective,” he said.
Merica has received backing from the Omaha Education Association and the Douglas County Democratic Party. State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha backs her, an aide said, as he did when she applied to fill a vacancy on the board in 2010. Merica worked as a legislative aide for Mello.
Merica said she's impressed with the way young professionals are stepping up in the community. She serves on the parish council at Holy Ghost Church.
The big issue facing the school district, Merica said, is student achievement. She advocates looking at personal achievement rather than standardized tests, because the tests don't measure growth.
“I think a major part of the student achievement issue is making sure resources are split equitably between all schools,” she said.
Merica said OPS has an image problem. Young couples are making decisions about where to live based on what they're hearing about the district.
The district, she said, needs to improve transparency and bolster relationships with state and local government and the Nebraska Legislature.
Whether or not she's elected, she said, she's committed to creating a public engagement website like the city's EngageOmaha.com to field questions, pass on ideas and get answers back to the community.
Merica, whose mother is an OPS elementary teacher, said she believes school board members should be out in the community. She's committed to having regular meetings in the community to talk about issues, explain board actions and offer outlets outside regular board meetings, which not everyone can attend.
Forsee not only taught science but also has brought science symposiums to the area and participated in research projects. A scuba diver, he has participated in coral reef studies off Jamaica, Micronesia and Belize.
Forsee said he wants to expand opportunities for students in the vocational, technical and academic areas. That includes dual high school and college enrollment programs. While on the Metro board, he began working with legislators to try to increase such options for students. In Iowa, the cost of tuition for high school students at community colleges is covered by the state. Nebraska needs to look at better coordinating dual enrollment programs and providing such aid, he said.
However, Forsee said he opposes diverting tax dollars for charter or private schools.
While he was on the Metro board, the college developed its Metro Express location at 20th and Vinton Streets, where adults could take English classes and, once proficient, begin working on high school equivalency diplomas. Bryan and South both have large Latino populations. South has a wonderful dual language program, he said, and he'd like to see it expand.
Testing, he said, has a role. But that role should be limited to helping students and parents. Metro uses ACT's Compass test to evaluate incoming students' skills and place them in appropriate courses. The school district could use it to make sure students are prepared before they graduate. Students would avoid the need for, and the cost of, taking remedial classes in college. If a student can't read, she should be held back.
Forsee, whose two children graduated from Bryan, also sees a role for expanding career education. In the 1970s, Abraham Lincoln had nine industrial arts teachers. When he retired there, there were two. Yet there are trades begging for qualified people.
He's afraid frequent grading changes and the amount of time now required for lesson planning are costing schools good teachers. Small changes, he said might make teaching more enjoyable and help keep teachers.
Contact the writer:
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
Occupation: claims adjuster
Public offices held: none
Education: Master of Business Administration degree, 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
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?
Forsee: Career and vocational education has been gutted since about the 1980s. We should increase it. Some preliminary classes can be done at high schools. Those at the Career Center aren't enough to meet needs. Another option is to partner with other schools, such as Metropolitan Community College.
Merica: I'd favor programs at each school, with more specialized programs at a career center. We have some already, such as Bryan High's transportation, distribution and logistics program and its urban agriculture and natural resources academy. They're an example of OPS recognizing needs in the community.
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?
Forsee: Consider a program to attract students, such as the International Baccalaureate at Central or the dual-language program at South. Look at discipline, make sure students are academically proficient and aren't frustrated.
Merica: A lot of it is educating the public about what's actually going on in the schools. I haven't completely figured out how. It could be bringing people in to showcase what they offer. If education performance is suffering, figure out why.
When test scores at a school are far below the district average, is it appropriate to replace the principal or other staff?
Forsee: Analyze why they're low, look at the student population. Are feeder schools high in poverty and English-language learners? If discipline is lacking, maybe you do look at replacing the principal. Don't do it based on test scores alone. Test scores should only be used to help students.
Merica: Issues like that need to be addressed case by case. A class might be making progress but still fail to meet standards. You shouldn't cut funding for those schools. I'd only favor removing someone if all other possibilities, such as mentoring or more education, have been exhausted.
Should teachers be paid extra — bonuses — when students score well on standardized tests?
Forsee: No. Only salespeople should be paid on merit. If you gauged my performance based on my advanced placement students, I'd get a bonus. But I probably wouldn't if most of my students were learning English. There are too many variables in teaching.
Merica: Any bonuses for teachers should look at students' overall achievement and not just standardized test scores. Payment should not be part of teachers' base pay.
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?
Forsee: Expanding dual enrollment opportunities would help top students, keep them from getting bored and dropping out. If we don't have all students ready, what's going to become of us as a community? That goes back to adding to vocational and career education.
Merica: OPS has started working more on differentiated education, teaching to those who are behind and challenging those who are ahead. At the high school level, we need to make sure we're providing advanced placement classes at all buildings.
Should the district set a minimum grade-point average for students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities?
Forsee: You'd have to find a way to factor in the difficulty of the courses students were taking. You wouldn't want students to avoid advanced classes in order to make sure they can participate. Nor should there be a penalty for students who take advanced courses.
Merica: Students should have to meet a minimum to participate. Some groups already have them. I tutored student-athletes in college. They need to plan for a career beyond sports. I don't have a number in mind and would have to study it.