The new leadership of the Omaha school board is eyeing a top-to-bottom examination of how the Omaha Public Schools district does business, to look for areas of improvement.
Omaha school board President Justin Wayne and Vice President Lou Ann Goding told The World-Herald on Friday about plans to improve struggling schools, reduce transportation costs and operate more openly. A series of audits, they said, will look for inefficiencies and duplications and help set priorities for a strategic plan.
Here are excerpts from the interview with the OPS board's new leaders:
What priorities will be at the top of the agenda for the new superintendent, Mark Evans?
Wayne: For me, it all goes back to laying that foundation, so it's making sure we have the audits in place. The reason the audits are so critical is we need to know what we're currently doing in order to move forward. We don't want to come in and put a new program in if we already have a program that's effective and working. And then you combine that with our strategic plan over the next six months. You have the layer of “Here's what we're doing.” Now you have the strategic plan tell you “Here's where we're going to go and how we're going to get there.” I think it's critical for our superintendent over the next six months to make sure the audits are done correctly and then make sure we get the strategic plan in place so we can move forward as a district.
Goding: For me, it's always been about, OK, if student achievement is our end game, then you have to start backing up, and you get all the way back here, it has to be a strategic plan. ... There are some (audits) that are critical to helping us understand the success of the student. And so those are the ones that I think he'll spend probably a significant amount of time making sure they are properly managed and done.
The audits that you've mentioned — the word has various connotations, like something bad is going on. You're “auditing the books.” What do you mean?
Wayne: We may have six programs dealing with attendance. You look at those programs and ask “Is there overlap? Is there duplication? Are there gaps in there?” And then you look at the building level: How many programs in that building have to do with attendance? Well, lo and behold, we may have one that wasn't in our six at the administration, because this building's now doing something different. So we actually may have seven across the whole district. We may have eight. As for the curriculum audit, they look at our current curriculum, how that matches up with state standards, how it matches up with our mission, and how that all flows together, and are we actually aligned correctly to make sure our kids are getting, as far as curriculum, what they're supposed to get.
Goding: And they're not done by in-house people. The most important thing is that an outside firm or organization will be performing those, because we want to make sure we have an independent set of eyes looking at what's happening. On the curriculum one, it not only looks at the material we're using, but are we implementing it as we should in the classroom correctly, and the instruction portion as well.
How quickly is the strategic plan going to get put together?
Wayne:That's for the board to decide. I, individually, want it as soon as possible. Most board members wanted a strategic plan as soon as possible — at least, that's what the campaign said. But as you know, it all comes down to the details, what areas are we looking at. That might take some conversation and some time, because part of what the candidates said on the campaign trail was they wanted the community involved. Summertime is a big travel time. So we may have to wait till August, September to get the community portion in place to hear what the community has to say.
Former board President Freddie Gray was criticized for withholding important information about Nancy Sebring from the board. Do you believe there are times when it's appropriate for the board president or vice president to keep secrets from the board members?
Wayne: I'm not going to comment on Freddie Gray's situation. And I will say that anyone who puts their time into a public position that's not paid gets respect from me. I will say these are conversations we're going to have, and part of the conversation is “How do we handle attorney communications to the board?” That's a conversation Lou Ann and I are going to have later on this afternoon. That's a conversation we've got to have with the board. There are different things we could do. We could add another board member to the attorney (contact) list. There seems to be, over the years, there were just two people who had all the communication, and we have to figure out how to open up that communication.
The board has to make that decision.
During Freddie Gray's term as president, and under Sandy Jensen before her, only the board president and vice president were authorized to speak publicly about OPS matters. Critics would say that hindered debate and denied the public access to their representatives. Will you change that policy?
Wayne: The policy says the president speaks for the board. That's true in any organization. Every organization has a spokesperson. But I encourage individuals to speak. But if the board wants to have a conversation where we remove that broad policy, I'd be more than happy to put it on the agenda and have that conversation. This board as individuals have already talked to the media outlets after they were sworn in. The key is people have to understand when people go on the radio or go on television they're speaking as themselves and not as the entire board.
When you were first elected to the board, Justin, you were told you couldn't have the organizational chart you requested because, in part, the staff time to prepare it would exceed one hour, and lengthier requests had to be made by a board committee. Will you change that policy?
Wayne: That is something that if the board wants to look at, we'll have a conversation about it. One of the things we're going to try to do with this board is to either draft a policy or procedure that allows for the minority voice to be heard publicly by the board. I think if three or more board members want something on the agenda to have a full discussion about, then it should be placed on the agenda. We're going to make sure we have that conversation of how we do that.
Justin, you've expressed an interest in seeking proposals from law firms other than Baird Holm to provide legal services for the district. You've also said the district should look into hiring a number of in-house attorneys who could handle routine legal matters and potentially save money. Do you intend to put those items on the agenda for board consideration?
Wayne: I can tell you that three or more board members have expressed that this conversation take place. It's just a matter of where it fits on the agenda. I think we'll have that initial conversation before the end of July. As far as hiring in-house counsel, that recommendation has to come from Mr. Evans, unless the board wants to seek its own in-house attorney. A lot of it has to do with board members don't know how necessarily the legal services work. Is there a bidding process? What does it look like? What legal services do we even have?
Members of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce have expressed a desire to become engaged with the district. That relationship is certainly going to be stronger, since several of the candidates they backed are now on the board. In what concrete ways will that improved relationship change the way the board does business?
Wayne: The chamber and many groups have always wanted to be engaged, and now that they are I think we have to maximize their input and engagement for the entire community. It could be as grand as building a school, which is hypothetical, or as small as funding these audits, and we can keep more dollars in the classroom. It could be as complicated as helping aligning some of our curriculum with the workforce that is needed in the next five years, or as simple as having a conversation about what's going on in the OPS school system.
Goding: The chamber is working to make Omaha a better place. And so any help we can get from them in dollars they are already spending to find out what the community needs, let's use that information instead of trying to go out to re-create it ourselves. If they're working on the wheel, and they've got it rolling, then let's share that information and work together to develop a better community. I think that's what we'll see. Even with the strategic plan, there may be things that they can offer up to us, as far as what they're seeing, as far as education needs.
The district has certain schools that have struggled with very low test scores. Are you going to ask Evans to look specifically at those schools and come up with a plan to improve them?
Wayne: Generally speaking, from all the strategic plans that I've seen other districts do, they always have a student-achievement section that deals with low-performing schools. Until we have that conversation, I can't tell you what the board or this administration is going to do. But what I will tell you is that, moving forward, Mr. Evans has already told the board that principal evaluations will be done entirely different, where community, staff and student input will be taken, and of course student achievement will be taken, and it will be a lot more collaborative input process where we build that school from within. And that may mean we have principal placement changes or principals removed. I don't know what that entire process looks like. But I can tell you student achievement will be a huge factor in that.
Goding: Mr. Evans is committed to moving forward on that process sooner rather than later.