Just 18 percent.
That’s what Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps predicts for the turnout of voters on Tuesday for Omaha mayor, City Council and the nine newly drawn districts of the Omaha Public Schools board. (Phipps adds that his prediction isn’t the number he wants to see, just an honest estimate of what’s likely to happen.)
Important primary elections decided by fewer than 1-in-5 registered voters in Omaha? Our city needs to do better than that — much better.
On Tuesday, Omaha needs a big turnout for elections of this significance.
Consider the OPS contests. When the Nebraska Legislature took the extraordinary step this year of revamping the school board, shrinking it from 12 members to nine and setting all-new elections, lawmakers emphasized that they were moving the elections to the spring for an important reason.
That reason: to keep the ballot relatively uncluttered so Omahans could focus on OPS issues and scrutinize the candidates closely — then turn out in significant numbers to vote.
The OPS primary — with the general election to follow on May 14 — is a critical chance to reboot the school board after a dispiriting, problem-plagued period and open up opportunities for positive change.
The people who will oversee the education of our children will have an enormous impact on Omaha’s future.
OPS is a huge, complex institution, and this election gives Omahans an all-important chance to empower capable OPS leaders who will direct Nebraska’s largest public school district with the vision, energy and focus it needs.
We need top-flight leaders guiding OPS at the board level — Omahans who work hard to study school issues and address them in practical, thoughtful ways; who understand the need to operate with openness and efficiency; who have the diplomatic skills to work constructively in group situations; and who have the breadth of vision to focus on the big long-term issues while keeping board operations from becoming a series of petty political spats.
We need OPS leaders with practical ideas and the skills to make progress on vital needs such as preparing students for 21st-century jobs and closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Consider the school board’s tremendous responsibilities: Making long-range decisions affecting more than 50,000 students. Overseeing 7,100 full-time employees. Stewardship of a general fund budget that, at $484 million, is 50 percent larger than the Omaha city government’s general fund budget.
There’s another important reason for voters to scrutinize OPS candidates closely and turn out to vote on Tuesday. The election comes at a time of big change and opportunity for OPS.
The new school board will install a new superintendent and provide him with all-important guidance on priorities. The board will need to emphasize accountability so the superintendent keeps the board and the public informed about the district’s progress. We need school board members who will not only point out the positives in OPS but also challenge it to reach a higher level.
How well OPS succeeds or fails in carrying out its educational mission will have sweeping effects on the metro area’s ability to sustain its economy, address social needs and crime problems, and strengthen the area’s reputation as a forward-looking community.
OPS has a proud history, and it has been encouraging to see so many candidates step up to compete in these new elections — 39 candidates in all.
These candidates are commendably doing their part. They’ve stood up to make a major commitment of time and energy to serve in these unpaid positions if elected or re-elected. They’ve met with voters and answered questions. Most have attended the candidate forums and spoken directly with the public.
Now OPS residents need to do their part.
So on Tuesday, get out and vote. We can do — must do — better than a turnout of just 18 percent.