This is an important moment for Omaha Public Schools. With a newly elected school board seated and a new superintendent starting work next month, OPS leaders are well-positioned to work together on a common vision that provides stability and promotes progress.
The district’s new nine-member board, which held its first meeting this week, has the opportunity to lay the foundation for long-term improvements.
That foundation will include values: Transparency and professionalism in board operations. A focus on high academic standards and effective instructional approaches. A commitment to explaining and discussing issues openly. A willingness to say, “Just because it’s always been done this way doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider new ideas and approaches.”
There’s more: Rigorous attention to budget efficiencies. A dedication to resolving disagreements (such as differing interests among individual schools or parts of the district) in a constructive way. A spirit of cooperation in working with other districts, nonprofits, state government and the private sector.
That foundation also will involve a professional approach to organizational management. The board needs to set proper boundaries of authority for itself and the superintendent, with each side carrying out its duties responsibly.
Board members must hold high expectations for student performance and set the district’s goals accordingly. They must manage fiscal policy so that OPS resources are aligned with those goals. They should support the superintendent when appropriate and challenge the superintendent when called for.
And the board president needs to operate in an open, collegial way rather than monopolizing authority.
OPS recently restructured its approach to legal services. But given past problems and the large amount of money the district has spent on lawyers, there’s no better time to consider hiring a staff attorney or seeking bids from other firms for providing legal services the district needs. The board’s attorney should not set policy or keep important information from board members. Legal counsel serves in an advisory capacity, and board members need to exercise independent judgment.
The good news is that the new OPS board is showing encouraging consensus on these points. Given the public comments and actions of the district’s board members, there is ample reason to expect OPS leaders to make significant progress in the months ahead.
The new OPS board president, Justin Wayne, previously had been a rather lonely voice pushing for change. Now he has the opportunity to lead the board toward needed improvements. This will call for skilled diplomacy and a demonstrated sense of respect and cooperation toward all board members.
This truly is a time of opportunity for OPS. The new superintendent, Mark Evans, comes to Omaha from Kansas with extensive experience in issues facing large urban school districts. His arrival will give momentum for major strides by OPS to promote cooperation and boost academic achievement, building on successful programs already in place and strengthening areas that need improvement.
After a discouraging period of fumbles and secretiveness by the previous board, Omahans expect and deserve an OPS board that focuses on professionalism, transparency and getting things done.
At the OPS board meeting Monday night, Wayne told his fellow board members, “There’s no doubt in my mind that we can be the model school district.”
He’s right. Now is the time to lay the foundation to make that happen.