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To fix struggling schools, Nebraska eyes alternative to its $4,000-a-day consultant

After paying nearly a million dollars over three years to a North Carolina consulting firm to help fix struggling Nebraska schools, the Nebraska State Board of Education will give other consultants a shot at doing the work.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt issued a request for proposals from consultants who would work to improve the state’s “priority schools.”

Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said Friday that her organization supports the move.

Nebraska has “a number of exemplary educators and administrators, who are doing a tremendous job at managing schools and classrooms,” she said.

The department should be “looking first to the expertise we have in the state before looking outside the state,” Fennell said.

The one-year contract starting July 1 could be worth as much as $350,000. It could be renewed for a second year.

State officials said they could end up hiring a combination of consultants, including KLK Consulting of Fayetteville, North Carolina, depending on their expertise and the specific needs of the school.

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In January, the Omaha World-Herald reported that the department was paying Kathy Kennedy of KLK Consulting $4,000 a day to work in priority schools. Her work included writing improvement plans and coaching teachers and administrators. Her associates were paid $3,000 a day.

The state had, by that time, awarded the firm contracts worth $965,000.

Kennedy said her fees were in line with the market. She pays her own expenses, and because she’s an independent consultant, the district and state pay her no benefits, health insurance or retirement.

Asked if KLK’s costs were a factor in the state seeking proposals, Blomstedt said: “Not necessarily, but it never hurts to be able to see what the marketplace is like.”

The department initially hired KLK Consulting in 2016 without seeking proposals, citing her qualifications and experience working in low-performing schools in the Omaha Public Schools. In contract documents, officials had indicated that no other contractor met the qualifications for the work.

Blomstedt said he now wants to see what expertise other consultants can offer to improve schools.

“I’m starting to see different types of needs than just what Kathy’s done,” he said.

For instance, he said, a consultant might provide coaching for school board members in a struggling district.

Blomstedt said that in the long run he would like a pool of potential consultants that could be tapped for different circumstances.

Based on test scores and other measures, the Nebraska Department of Education classifies public schools as excellent, great, good or needing improvement. Priority schools are selected from among the lowest-performing “needs improvement” schools.

The state sends in an intervention team to develop and implement an improvement plan.

Since 2015, the state has intervened in four priority schools: Druid Hill Elementary, Loup County Elementary, Santee Middle School and Schuyler Central High School.

Druid Hill met state goals and was delisted in 2017.

On Friday, the state board members voted to delist Loup County, citing sufficient progress. Members voted to keep Santee Middle School on the list and add Santee’s elementary and high school — essentially listing the whole district. Schuyler Central, which was listed last year, will remain a priority school for another year.

The state’s reliance on consultants has brought some criticism. Several board members Friday said they want Blomstedt to continue to look for ways to do the work with state employees.

Blomstedt has said he wants to wean the department of its dependence on consultants. He said Friday, however, that state salary limits on his department have prevented him from hiring staff to do the work.

“We are essentially at our cap and have been since I came to the agency,” he said.

In the request for proposals, the department is asking that consultants help in building the capacity of the state and educational service units to engage in school improvement.

Fennell said education officials should keep their eye on the big picture.

“It’s beyond having one person come in and offer some kind of training to teachers, but really looking systemically,” she said. “What are we doing around mental health issues,” teacher training and other issues.

“Are we going to go an inch deep and a mile wide?” she asked. “Or are we really going to go deep and address these problems?”

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)

NASA to allow private citizens to fly to the International Space Station

NASA is planning to allow private astronauts to fly to the International Space Station, as well as open up the orbiting laboratory to more commercial interests, including filming advertisements in an attempt to help fund its crash plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, the agency announced Friday.

The announcement is a significant change for the agency, which has had a long-standing prohibition against allowing tourists and commercial interests on the station, which has cost taxpayers about $100 billion over its lifespan. Russia, however, has allowed several private astronauts on the station.

Under the NASA plan, as many as two private astronauts per year could fly to the station and stay for up to 30 days with the first mission coming as early as next year.

Jeff DeWit, NASA's chief financial officer, estimate that the cost per trip would be about $50 million a seat. But the cost and arrangements would be left to SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies NASA has hired to fly crews to the station. While on board the station, NASA would charge people for food, storage and communication, a cost that would come to about $35,000 a night.

"But it won't come with any Hilton or Marriott points," DeWit said.

Right now, commercial activity on the station is largely limited to science experiments. But under the new policy, NASA would allow business to pursue profit by allowing them a range of pursuits, including marketing and advertising.

"We have no idea what kinds of creativity and literally out of the world ideas can come from private industry," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's head of human exploration, said during a news conference.

The goal is to help the agency generate additional revenue. But officials said it was unclear how much money the efforts would produce.

"I's hard to project what's going to come back," DeWit said. "What we're hearing is is a lot of excitement in the commercial sector for this. But it's hard to get accurate projections until six or 12 months from now, when we see what actually comes back in and who partners with us."

The announcement comes as the agency is trying to return humans to the moon by 2024, a crash mission that officials said would require significant additional funding.

NASA has already amended its budget request for next year to ask for an addition $1.6 billion, and has said that it would need significantly more money in the years to come to have any chance at pulling off such an ambitious plan.

Video: On June 7 NASA announced its plans to open the International Space Station for private commercial use, allowing companies to engage in "profit-making activities.

Otis was his name: Young witness says she knew the man who killed her boyfriend in cold blood

Yevion Brown just wanted to spend a little time with her boyfriend, Markeise Dunn, before her 11 a.m. shift at McDonald’s.

So on Nov. 26, 2016, Brown’s sister dropped her off at Markeise’s home near North 20th and Pratt Streets.

Brown made herself some eggs, and she and Markeise shared a marijuana joint.

Theirs was a different bond. At the time, she was 22. He was just 16. They clicked. She was quiet; he was not.

“He was a very outgoing, loving, hardworking person,” Brown testified this week. “And he also made me laugh.”

That Saturday morning, Markeise grabbed a $5 bill and said they could stop at a convenience store just down the street — so he could get her change for the fare for the bus she was going to catch at 24th and Pratt Streets.

They walked west on Pratt Street, temperature about 50, a mild Saturday after Thanksgiving.

What happened next was surreal — like something out of a John Singleton movie. Only this was real, and the trailer for this crime played out in a fourth-floor Douglas County courtroom this week, as 24-year-old Otis Walker stood trial on a charge of first-degree murder.

Jurors began deliberating the case Friday, and are expected to resume Monday.

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Testifying quietly, breaking down once, Brown told jurors that the walk was mindless and quiet — so she and Markeise didn’t notice a burgundy car with dark-tinted windows creeping behind them. The car moved so slowly that it stunned Brown when the passenger side window rolled down.

“What’s up,” the passenger said.

“What’s up,” Brown said back.

“What’s up,” Markeise said.

The passenger kept repeating “What’s up,” followed by “Where you from?”

Then, out of nowhere: Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Brown looked on, stunned. For a few seconds, Markeise just stood there. Brown thought maybe the passenger had missed, had just fired warning shots.

Then Markeise collapsed.

Brown was even more stunned at who she says the shooter was. She had recognized him the instant the dark-tinted window slid down, revealing his face.

It was Otis, a boy who, about eight years earlier, was in seventh grade at McMillan Magnet Center when she was an eighth-grader there.

“I was gonna ask if he remembered me,” Brown testified. “But I’ve been taught you have to have respect for the man you’re with. I was with my boyfriend.”

That Saturday morning, Steve Davis, 54, was with a drum line group called the Condors. They were practicing at the Salvation Army gym near 24th and Pratt Streets.

Davis was hauling a drum set out of the building when he heard a different sort of bang.

Six shots pierced the morning air. Davis turned and saw a person down. He ran to him, the soles of his shoes facing Davis.

He approached the victim and couldn’t believe his eyes. It was Markeise — a young man Davis had drilled with as a drummer just a few months before.

Markeise was Davis’ lead snare drummer for the Omaha Marching Tigerettes.

“He was the coldest snare player in north Omaha,” Davis said. “I was proud to have him on my squad.”

Davis knew Markeise as an outgoing, respectful young man. Markeise always called Davis “Mr. Steve.”

Davis had drilled with Markeise for about three months in 2016. More than a dozen drummers, mostly teenagers, would gather on the tennis courts across from the house where Markeise and his mother lived — near King Elementary School.

But then Davis fell on hard times — and he couldn’t run his drum line anymore.

The Omaha Housing Authority employee would occasionally see Markeise around. Once, Davis spotted Markeise with three other teens downtown in the middle of a school day.

“He said, ‘Oh, Mr. Steve, we’re just hanging out,’ ” Davis recalled. “I said, ‘No, Markeise, you know you’re supposed to be in school.’ ”

Davis knew Markeise had smarts. He had a gift of gab. And he knew computers, so handy he could assemble a computer tower. The other side: Brown acknowledged that she and Markeise sometimes smoked weed six times a day. And Markeise’s chronic absences had landed him at Parrish, an alternative school in the Omaha Public Schools.

Brown’s identification isn’t the only evidence against Walker, prosecutors Brenda Beadle and Ann Miller told jurors.

Police located Walker in Texas a few weeks after the shooting. Investigators searched his phone and found that Walker had deleted his Facebook page a half-hour after the shooting. He also searched five times for any news reports on the homicide.

Later, he typed the following Google searches into his phone: “good lawyers to find in Omaha” and “do you have to get picked out of a lineup to be found guilty?”

Authorities are still searching for a motive.

While some have speculated on a gang rivalry, detectives have said they found no connection between Markeise and Walker.

Walker’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Cindy Tate, suggested that Brown was impaired by her marijuana use and that authorities don’t know whether the passenger or driver opened fire.

Prosecutors told jurors that the evidence overwhelmingly points to Walker.

“This is a very simple, straightforward case,” Beadle told jurors. “And a very senseless one.”

Notable crime news of 2019

To prevent strokes, Nebraska Medicine's clinic puts heart and head together

Quinton Guerrero came in from taking his dog for a walk in late December, removed the pup’s harness and leash, then sat down and began talking with his girlfriend.

The 23-year-old Bellevue resident found his mind drifting. He began having difficulty moving — and speaking.

Guerrero, who had taken first aid while working for an after-school program, suspected he was having a stroke. But it didn’t make sense.

“I was kind of confused, because I thought that only happened to people who were 60 or 70, not 23,” he said.

The couple called 911. Guerrero was taken to Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue, given blood clot-busting drugs and transferred to the Nebraska Medical Center.

Later, he got a workup through Nebraska Medicine’s Brain-Heart Clinic, a roughly year-old, interdisciplinary clinic where patients see a neurologist and cardiologist at the same time. The clinic’s aim is to identify patients with certain conditions that place them at risk of stroke and, working together, determine the appropriate steps to prevent it, said Dr. Andrew Goldsweig, associate director for structural heart disease at Nebraska Medicine.

With those conditions, stroke typically occurs as a result of a blood clot traveling from the heart. Many of the patients they see are younger; Goldsweig estimated the average age for the clinic’s patients at late 30s to early 40s, with lots of years of work and life ahead of them. Stroke is the No. 5 killer in the United States, according to the American Heart Association, claiming the lives of about 142,000 people each year. It’s also a leading cause of disability.

His primary partners in the clinic are Drs. Michael Pichler, a neurologist, and Jeffrey Delaney, a pediatric cardiologist who practices primarily at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center but also sees patients at the medical center.

Tests ruled out a number of potential causes for Guerrero’s stroke, including abnormal heart rhythms, clotting disorders and blocked carotid arteries.

That left what’s known as a patent foramen ovale, a hole or open flap between the upper chambers of the heart that can — in relatively rare cases — allow clots to flow through the heart to the brain and cause a stroke.


Dr. Andrew Goldsweig, left, talks to Quinton Guerrero before performing a procedure to fix a hole in Guerrero’s heart in the catheter lab at Nebraska Medicine on Tuesday, June 04, 2019.

Such holes are normal in the hearts of babies in the womb, who get oxygen through their umbilical cords instead of their lungs. The flap allows blood to pass between chambers of the heart, bypassing the lungs. But it typically closes after a baby takes his or her first breath and eventually seals completely.

However, military studies indicate that the hole doesn’t close in about 25 percent of people, Goldsweig said. For the vast majority of those people, it won’t ever prove a problem, so doctors don’t screen for the condition. Screening likely would result in many people getting procedures they don’t really need, which can create a risk of complications.

But in some, like Guerrero, it lets a clot through. In fact, such holes — known as PFOs for short — are involved in about 40 percent of strokes with no known cause.

“(In) young people who have strokes,” Goldsweig said, “this is by and large the cause.”

To prevent future strokes, doctors may opt to close the hole. Evaluating such patients is one of the clinic’s main focuses. Another is evaluating those with a type of irregular heart rhythm for another stroke-preventing device called a WATCHMAN.

CHI Health will soon be launching its own heart and brain clinic at Immanuel Medical Center, said Dr. Himanshu Agarwal, an interventional cardiologist at Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy.

Goldsweig said the number of closures has increased since devices were specifically approved for PFOs in 2017 and 2018. But there’s no tally of how many are done each year. The medical center performed 25 last year and is on pace to complete more this year.

So far, however, there are no national guidelines indicating which patients should get closure. Goldsweig is part of a 12-member work group made up of representatives from two cardiology and neurology groups that is working to write such rules.

Agarwal said he expects the number of closures to increase once the guidelines are completed. He’s been performing the procedure for about 15 years and now does up to 30 a year. His youngest patient was a then-22-year-old nurse who works for the health system.

Though they don’t have a dedicated clinic, Bryan Health in Lincoln also performs the procedure, and Methodist Hospital began offering it earlier this year.

Guerrero was a good candidate for closure. Last week, Goldsweig threaded a catheter through a vein in his upper leg to his beating heart, guided by X-rays and ultrasound.


Dr. Andrew Goldsweig, shows off a device that he will use in a procedure to fix a hole in Quinton Guerrero's heart.

Once Goldsweig was satisfied the catheter was in the proper position, he deployed the device, which had been flattened inside a sheath. The device is comprised of two nickel and titanium mesh disks, connected by a short bar, that sit on either side of the flap. He also did some checks to make sure the leak was closed. The lining of the heart typically heals over the device in about a month.

Guerrero, who went home that night, will take aspirin and an anti-clotting drug for a few months, checking back in at one, six and 12 months. He’ll be the first patient from the medical center to be entered in a registry the FDA has asked the device’s maker to maintain to confirm the results of the original study that led to its approval.

Guerrero said after the procedure that he’s still surprised he had a stroke in the first place. He said he still lacks feeling in his right arm and has some other symptoms, but he’s back working for a liquor distributorship.

And he’s glad Goldsweig was able to fix the hole. His stroke experience is not something he cares to repeat.

“I just don’t want it to happen again,” he said.

17 rare and unusual health stories out of Omaha