The Learning Community Council got ahead of itself last week with its proposal to hire consultants to help metro-area superintendents craft a plan for expanding early childhood education, a state senator said.
The proposal should have originated with the superintendents, not the council, said State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion. That's the path spelled out in the legislation he sponsored last session giving the council authority to fund early childhood education programs for poor children.
“We have a case where everyone's in agreement with what we need to do,” he said, “but we just want to make sure the right process and collaboration is followed.”
At a council meeting Thursday, after she had heard the concerns of citizens, teachers and other council members, council Chairwoman Lorraine Chang pulled a proposal that would have paid two Omaha consultants $1,000 a day each.
One of the consultants would have been Virginia Moon, the former interim superintendent of the Omaha Public Schools.
Chang and Ted Stilwill, the Learning Community's chief executive officer, said they plan to meet with the superintendents advisory council before taking further steps. Chang also said she wants to allow more time to hear from the public and from council members.
“We'll get it back on track,” Stilwill said.
He said there may have been some confusion about the role of the superintendents group.
State Sen. Greg Adams of York, speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, and State Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha said the superintendents will have plenty of input, particularly if Moon is involved.
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a member of the Legislature's Education Committee who was involved in crafting the legislation, said he agreed with Smith that the Learning Community needs to follow the process spelled out in the law.
Avery said the contract amount strikes him “as a bit excessive.” The average taxpayer, he said, has a hard time identifying with a $1,000-a-day pay rate.
“They're doing the public's business,” he said. “They ought to be sensitive to what the public thinks.”
State Sen. John Murante of Gretna also has concerns about the proposed contract's costs. “The money was to be directed as close to the classroom as possible,” he said.
Kolowski, an Education Committee member, said the proposed contract is a small portion of the funds that will go toward early childhood education.
Stilwill said he was trying to get rolling on the process of developing a plan and providing the superintendents with resources. Though they have considerable educational experience, they don't have the resources or experience necessary for working with 1- and 2-year-olds and their families, he said.
This spring, Stilwill arranged for Dr. Laura Jana, an Omaha pediatrician, to speak to the council on the subject of brain science and early childhood education. The council also has been getting input from Dr. Samuel Meisels, a nationally known expert in early childhood education and the new director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
The proposal called for hiring Jana and Moon to advise the superintendents under a contract that would have paid them up to $72,000 apiece for 72 days of work.
Stilwill said he did have conversations with some, but not all, of the superintendents about the proposal.
Kevin Riley, Gretna Public Schools superintendent and liaison for the superintendents committee, has said the superintendents talked informally about the plan and favored having Moon facilitate the project.
But Smith said informal conversations weren't what lawmakers had in mind when they said the superintendents committee would make a recommendation.
The superintendents, he said, may very well recommend that the council hire consultants.
“I think that should originate with them,” Smith said, noting that isn't even possible until the law takes effect Sept. 6.
The law is intended to lay out how to spend between $2 million and $3 million a year to serve metro-area children in high-poverty areas.
Stilwill has said that the pay under the proposed contract was reasonable, considering the task and the experience of both Moon and Jana.
But he acknowledged that most people aren't used to seeing consultant contracts as a day rate. The proposed $1,000 rate breaks down to $125 an hour.
Chang said the council got a lot of good input at Thursday's meeting. “People are very invested in making sure the plan is a good one,” she said.