The five candidates competing for three seats on the Elkhorn Public Schools board agree on one thing: the school district is humming along just fine.
The district’s enrollment continues to grow, students score high on state tests and voters have dug deep into their pockets, approving bond referendum after bond referendum to build new schools or renovate older ones.
But candidates said school board members and administrators will have to continue to work side by side to manage Elkhorn’s growth while retaining its small-town charm and keeping taxes from spiraling out of control. Elkhorn has one of the highest tax rates among Nebraska school systems.
And they’ve got ideas on how to improve the district more, from beefing up civics education to providing more job-training and career education programs for students who aren’t necessarily interested in college.
Incumbents Chuck Burney and Amy Parks are running for re-election alongside Charles Garman, Nancy Rogic-Greufe and Reagan Rosenberg, who have not held political office before. Board member Susan Zingler decided not to run again.
Burney, a retired Millard social studies teacher who also works as a real estate agent, was elected in 2010. With a relatively new superintendent in place — Bary Habrock started in 2017 — Burney said he thinks it’s important to have continuity on the board.
Student achievement remains high in the district, he said, and the board and Elkhorn leadership continue to plan ahead for the families that keep moving into the district. Elkhorn’s enrollment typically increases 7 to 8 percent each year. Voters approved a record-breaking $149.6 million bond issue in March that will fund, among other projects, a third high school.
Burney said the board will have to balance the need for new-and-improved schools with the growing tax burden on residents. And while Elkhorn high schools have a strong college-bound culture, he’d also like to see a bigger emphasis on career and technical education.
“In Elkhorn, we do a great job of preparing kids for college,” he said. “But I think it’s really important to make students aware of all their opportunities, whether it’s a four-year school or a trade school.”
Garman has run, unsuccessfully, for public office several times, seeking spots on the Elkhorn board in 2010 and the Learning Community Coordinating Council in 2012. In 2014, he challenged Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.
He said he’s older and more experienced now, with two kids in Elkhorn schools and a job as an attorney for the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee that gives him a greater understanding of school policies and statewide funding issues. He doesn’t think serving on the school board would conflict with his day job, and said he could keep the two roles separate.
Garman thinks he could bring balance to the board. He’s not someone who thinks any issue in education can be solved by throwing money around, nor does he want to see Elkhorn’s budget gutted in the name of fiscal responsibility. He’s also in favor of expanding civics education so students know more about American history and government and are encouraged to participate civically.
“We want to teach about America, but we also want to trigger that civic interest in our students,” he said.
Parks was elected in 2014, after a history of volunteering in and around Elkhorn schools. Like Burney, she thinks the board will benefit from consistency. The learning curve is huge when you’re first elected, she said, and she’s gotten a handle on district operations and her role as a board member after serving four years.
The current board and administration work well together, she said, and do a good job of handling issues as they crop up, including touchy subjects like boundary changes. The district’s ongoing challenge will be planning for more students while holding on to the qualities that parents prize, like smaller class sizes, academic excellence and neighborhood-centered schools.
“We need to manage growth while maintaining quality,” she said.
But she pointed to signs that the district is on the right track, like a one-to-one technology initiative that’s giving middle and high schoolers Chromebooks and a renewed emphasis on school safety and security after the Parkland, Florida, shooting.
Rogic-Greufe is an anesthesiologist with six kids who have attended Elkhorn schools, so she’s seen the district evolve and change over the course of nearly two decades. She worked on the committee to pass the district’s first bond and has volunteered with numerous parent and school groups. Running for the school board is the next step to continue to serve the Elkhorn community, she said.
“I got to the point that I had done a lot of things in Elkhorn, and I really love Elkhorn, and I figured this would be a great way for me to serve in a different capacity,” she said.
As Elkhorn’s growth continues unabated, she doesn’t want kids to become just a number or a face in the crowd. Families like hers moved to the area because they want and prize a sense of community, she said.
Rogic-Greufe said she works well with others, has an extensive contacts list because of her years of volunteering and can focus on the district’s big-picture goals.
Rosenberg has plenty of ties to Elkhorn. As a school psychologist, she previously worked in the district and her husband is a teacher and football coach at Elkhorn South High.
“I have worked with individual students, with classrooms, with full schools,” she said. “And working for the school board just gives me the opportunity to bring that to the next level, to work for the full district and serve my educational community that way.”
She said the board will have to make tough decisions about building and renovating schools and changing attendance zones as new schools get built or existing schools become crowded. Those decisions have to stay student-centered, she said. As a school psychologist, she thinks she can bring perspective on how to serve all students, from those with special needs to gifted students who need to be challenged.
She also hears a lot from parents who want more recess during the day, so kids can be active and get the wiggles out so they can focus in class.
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Named for the Elkhorn River and positioned a short distance from where that river empties into the Platte River, the town of Elkhorn was born from the rails. The construction of the Union Pacific Railroad west of Omaha prompted the building of Elkhorn Station in 1866, around which the town of Elkhorn began to form. Though it was first incorporated in 1872, Elkhorn gave up its charter after a few years amid economic woes, and would remain an unincorporated village for years. Finally, two decades after the first rails passed through Elkhorn Station, the town of Elkhorn was again incorporated by an act of the legislature on Dec. 30, 1886, this time for good.
In 1895, a fire burned an entire block of Main and south of Center Streets, destroying a hotel and livery, a bakery and several shops. Above, the town's volunteer firefighters in 1891.
A new Town Hall was constructed in 1905 by Alec McKenzie at a cost of $1,055. The building, which was eventually outfitted to serve as its library and jail, still stands today as a historical landmark.
Elkhorn's first school, a one-room schoolhouse made of logs, was built some time in the early 1850s. When a fire destroyed that first building, it was replaced in 1869 by a two-story, four-classroom school. However it wasn't until 1914, when a new wing was added to that building, that Elkhorn was able to expand the school from grade 10 to grade 12, giving the town its first accredited high school. The first high school students posed for a picture in 1914. The new Elkhorn High School graduated its first class, five students in total, in 1916.
The Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road in the United States, was paved in concrete base and brick through Elkhorn in 1913. The road brought tourists to the town, inspiring one hotel to change its name to "The Lincoln Highway Hotel."
A new schoolhouse for grades 1-12 replaced the town's first multi-room school building in 1930.
The grade school at Elkhorn School was moved to a new, $340000 split-level building in 1961 as enrollment grew and more room was needed. The school was then expanded in 1964 with the addition of four new rooms.
The town of Elkhorn celebrated its centennial anniversary, dating back to the platting of the town in 1867. The town's history was documented in the book, "1867-1967 Elkhorn, Nebraska, The First Century of Progress," by the Elkhorn Women's Club Centennial Book Committee.
Between 1972 and 1975, Elkhorn platted the housing developments of Ramblewood, Fair Meadows and Antler Country; while most of these developments were technically not a part of the city of Elkhorn, they added more than 700 lots to the surrounding area, parts of which would later be joined to the city. Above, the first home in Chapel Hills. According to Patsy Schmidt, the president of the Elkhorn Historical Society, the 1970s marked the beginning of Elkhorn's suburban boom, driven largely by "white flight" from the city of Omaha to Elkhorn and the newly built housing developments around it. In 1970, Elkhorn's population was 1,184, according to the Census Bureau. By the turn of the century, it would be 6,062, thanks to these forces of suburban flight and a flurry of annexations in the 1990s.
Elkhorn's major additions in the 1980s belied its gradual transformation into a suburban refuge for Omahans looking to escape the city. In 1980, Ta-ha-zouka Park was built, named for the Omaha Indian phrase "Elk's Horn," from which the Elkhorn River itself takes its name. That year also saw the opening of Metropolitan Community College, Elkhorn Valley Campus, the first college campus in the town. Educating 1,200 students in its first year, the Elkhorn Valley Campus has grown to 1,558 full-time students as of the 2016-17 school year, making it MCC's third biggest campus. Elkhorn also added two golf courses in the decade, Skyline Golf Course in 1982 and Elkhorn Ridge Golf Course in 1987, and opened its first mall, Hillrise stip mall, in 1983.
The election of Phil Klein as mayor of Elkhorn in 1992 marked the beginning of an era of aggressive expansion, mostly through annexation, in Elkhorn. Above, Klein and the Elkhorn City Council. Klein's annexations of Ramblewood to the northwest; Skyline Ranches and Estates, Chapel Hill and Rogers Ridge to the south; Brittany Estates and Greenbrier to the west; and Winterburn to the east help bring the population of Elkhorn from 1,398 in 1990 to 6,062 in 2000.
The controversial annexations of Skyline Ranches and Chapel Hill by Mayor Phil Klein were just the first of several such moves the city made in the 1990s.
In 1996, Elkhorn annexed eight subdivisions in one year, nearly tripling its population while absorbing the areas of Rogers Ridge, Ramblewood, Quail Ridge I and II, Skyline Oaks I and II, Wadsworth and Wright. Above, an Omaha city employee changes Quail Ridge Drive to Quail Ridge Circle in 2007 as part of the annexation from Elkhorn to Omaha.
In 2005, Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey announced his plans to annex Elkhorn before the smaller city could reach the 10,000 population needed to prevent involuntary annexation by Omaha. The declaration met strong opposition from the majority of Elkhorn's 8,000 residents, and Elkhorn Mayor Phil Klein rushed to annex enough of Elkhorn's neighboring subdivisions to prevent his city's own annexation by Omaha. When those efforts came short, Elkhorn sued the city of Omaha, eventually taking its case all the way to Nebraska's Supreme Court. Above, Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (left) and Elkhorn Mayor Phil Klein exit Fahey's office following a 10-minute discussion of the dispute on Feb. 24, 2005.
In January 2007, two years after Omaha announced its intention to annex Elkhorn, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that Omaha's annexation of Elkhorn was legal. Elkhorn officially became part of Omaha on March 1. Above, Elkhorn Mayor Phil Klein gets a hug from city resident at the close of Elkhorn's final City Council meeting before its annexation by Omaha.
More than a decade since it was annexed by Omaha, Elkhorn's independence lives on, in spirit if not in law. Many residents still harbor bitter feelings about the forced annexation, with some still asserting that Elkhorn is not truly part of the big city. Every summer the city commemorates its heritage and history with a parade and other festivities during "Elkhorn Days," and in 2017, the parade celebrated Elkhorn's 150th anniversary as an independent municipality.