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Katie Underwood heads into Tuesday's election with a stiff tailwind after capturing nearly 57 percent of the votes in the primary.
The strong showing surprised her, and while confident, she's not taking anything for granted.
Her opponent, Andy Allen, knows he has a lot of ground to make up. He hopes voters will recognize him as the most experienced candidate.
Voters ousted short-term incumbent Danyelle Baratta in the primary, leaving the political newcomers to battle it out in Subdistrict 7.
The district lies in the heart of Omaha, south of Dodge Street, and contains the Aksarben and Elmwood Park areas.
Underwood, a civil engineer for Olsson Associates, said that if Omaha is to be a vibrant community and a great place to live, the schools must be successful.
Recruited to run by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, she also has the backing of the Omaha Education Association, the OPS teachers union.
Her top goals are to foster more unity on the school board, improve OPS's communication both internally and with the community, and develop a strategic plan to guide decision-making.
Voters want leaders they can trust, she said.
“They currently have a bad taste in their mouth for the way things have been going, and they're ready for change,” she said.
Board members must set goals, she said. They don't have to agree on everything, but they have to put in the time to build working relationships that allow them to “constructively disagree,” she said.
There are good things going on in the district, and OPS has to do a better job of “telling its story,” she said.
The district needs to adopt a strategy for communicating with the public that will regain trust, she said. The strategy must also spell out how to communicate with teachers and administrators so they don't feel they are “out of the loop,” she said.
Communication will be important as the district develops a strategic plan, she said. She said Houston Independent School District put its strategic plans on its website, easy to find with a click.
While school buildings across the district generally appear in good shape, Norris Middle School appears to be an exception, she said.
“They have some facilities issues that need addressed,” she said, among them no central air conditioning and windows in the gym that won't open for lack of parts.
Keeping schools in good shape is important because the physical environment affects learning, she said.
As an engineer, she said she will be keeping a close eye on the district's plans to keep up its facilities.
Underwood said teachers are interested in presenting some new ideas for teacher evaluations, going beyond just the principal conducting the evaulation to take input from parents, students and peers.
Though it seems counterintuitive, teachers she's talked with want more evaluations.
Teachers also want more professional development, the training aimed at keeping them fresh in their skills. She said they're not getting enough training, and the type they're getting is not helpful to them.
Underwood said residents should be able to live anywhere in OPS and know their neighborhood school is as strong as any other in the district.
Allen is a computer technician for Lockheed Martin, a contractor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha.
He is past president and lobbyist for the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association.
“The big difference between me and Katie is experience,” Allen said. “I've been around working in the OPS schools, as a volunteer, having served on parental advisory committees, working inside OPS. So I've seen a lot of the problems and I've seen the successes.”
He said OPS has great things going on but missteps have kept it from getting that information out. When a program is successful at one school it should be replicated at others, he said.
Mistakes should be acknowledged, he said.
“We need to step up, own our mistakes, not cover them up, hide them, and say, 'Hey, we did this. It was wrong, and we're fixing it this way,'” Allen said.
The district should strengthen neighborhood schools, some of which have overcrowded classrooms, he said.
“The teachers are struggling with all the various things that are piled upon teachers to do,” he said. “They are no longer just expected to teach, but they have to be a nurse, they've got to cover food services, a counselor and everything else all thrown into one.”
The district may have to bump up class sizes slightly at some schools in order to alleviate crowding at others, he said. By strengthening neighborhood schools, the district could reduce busing costs, he said.
Legal costs have been excessive, and that's a school board responsibility, he said.
Allen is a strong supporter of career education. He said at the minimum, OPS must turn out graduates who can be successful in the local job market.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, email@example.com
Occupation: computer technician
Public offices held: none
Education: some college
Family: wife, one daughter
Occupation: civil engineer
Public offices held: none
Education: Bachelor of science civil engineering degree from UNL
Q&A with the candidates
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?
Allen: Each high school should offer a basic level of career education. North High could offer construction management to complement the engineering magnet. Programs should offer opportunities for credit toward associate degrees. New programs could be started at schools that are losing students. The district should partner with businesses to offer work-study opportunities.
Underwood: The OPS career education center located near the Teacher Administrative Center provides some great programs such as culinary arts, broadcasting and automotive repair. But some of those programs could be spread across the district, which would encourage participation.
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?
Allen: Certain schools have a public perception problem. OPS must sell the community on the great things going on at those schools, and that kids attending them are safe. The district has to aggressively examine what's causing the low test scores that cause parents to avoid certain schools. The district must strengthen its neighborhood schools so parents want their kids to attend them.
Underwood: People should be able to live anywhere in OPS and know their neighborhood school is good. Equalizing the offerings among schools could help. The district should evaluate the effectiveness of its magnet programs. OPS can do a better job of telling its story and highlighting successes at each school. Benson High School, for instance, has great JROTC and art programs. Some of the problem is perception, but some is reality.
When test scores at a school are far below the district average, is it appropriate to replace the principal or other staff?
Allen: Low test scores cannot be the only performance measure. Poor performance could be attributable to bad decisions by the school board, such as shorting a school on staff. If the cause of low scores is a failing of the administration and staff, replace them. Some low-performing principals may have to be moved back to the classroom.
Underwood: Removal should depend on more than test scores. The district should look at teacher morale and whether they feel supported. Student academic growth is a better measure than test scores.
Should teachers be paid extra — bonuses — when students score well on standardized tests?
Allen: Firm believer in bonuses for teachers, but not in tying them to test scores. Scores are only a small part of the picture. A great teacher may be working with difficult students. Even small bonuses can encourage and motivate teachers who do something outstanding.
Underwood: Open to the idea of giving teachers bonuses, but it should not be based totally on test scores. Too many variables affect kids' performance on tests.
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?
Allen: The law was never intended as a permanent solution. Educators should pressure federal representatives to do away with the law and develop a local alternative. The district must make sure that resources are available to serve high-achieving kids, while supporting at-risk kids.
Underwood: The district should try to raise the bar for kids of all ability levels. Offering honors and advanced-placement classes, and a wide breadth of classes, is important. The district should provide professional development to teachers to help them differentiate instruction and use different teaching styles.
Should the district set a minimum grade-point average for students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities?
Allen: Kids want to be challenged, otherwise they are going to skate by and do the minimum. The district has to raise the bar. The community has seen the high dropout rates and low test scores. Not sure what's the right threshold, but the district must have support ready to help students maintain eligibility.
Underwood: Not against it, but wants to make sure it would not cut off students whose only motivation to stay in school is playing sports. If it were imposed, the district should have a way of helping students in jeopardy of falling below the threshold. Sports benefit students through friendships, teamwork and interaction.