LINCOLN – Some prominent state lawmakers expect a proposal that would shrink the size of the Omaha school board to receive broad support this session, a year after a similar measure failed in the Legislature.
With former State Sen. Brenda Council, a key Omaha Public Schools advocate, no longer in Lincoln, lawmakers expect the bill to reach the governor's desk and shake up the state's largest school district.
If that happens, school board candidates could be campaigning weeks after newly elected members took their oaths of office.
Legislative Bill 125 would shrink the board from 12 members to nine and limit members to two consecutive terms. There now is no term limit. The bill also calls for new board members to be elected this spring, during the city election.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha introduced the measure Friday. He has been trying to alter the size of the OPS board since fall 2011.
He argues that the board is too large to be effective and lists recent controversies as evidence: the board's superintendent search last year that ended with Nancy Sebring resigning before she began; the board being caught off-guard by a $1 million retirement payout to Superintendent John Mackiel; and what Lautenbaugh called an “ongoing sense of chaos and underperformance by the board.”
Lautenbaugh added a flap this past week to his list.
The World-Herald reported Friday that under state law, the board must swear in newly elected board members “before the first Monday in January.” Instead, the four new and two returning board members took the oath of office on the first Monday of the month.
If the officials are not sworn in before the first Monday, the law states, their election is void and the board must fill the vacancies.
David Patton, an OPS spokesman, said the board has consulted with its attorneys and contends the members have been properly seated.
“The events of this week have convinced me more than ever that change is needed,” Lautenbaugh said.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, who chairs the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said he doesn't foresee any problem getting the bill out of his committee.
“It appears to me that the OPS board is continuing to behave in a way that proves the need for this bill,” he said.
OPS board Vice President Marian Fey said she doesn't worry about the size of the board because she doesn't know how it relates to student achievement.
New board member Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum said change has already come to the board: She and three other new members were elected in November.
“We haven't had a chance to do anything,” she said. “But a change has taken place, and that's what he wants.”
The committee advanced Lautenbaugh's bill last year, but it stalled in the full Legislature when Council mounted a filibuster.
Council was defeated by Ernie Chambers in the November election. Chambers, a frequent critic of OPS, said Friday he would support a change to nine members, elected by district. But he said he would oppose the term limits portion of the bill.
Lautenbaugh said Friday he would consider dropping the term limits provision.
His bill also calls for board members to remain unpaid. Last year's measure originally proposed a five-member paid board but was later amended to include a seven-member, unpaid board.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, chairwoman of the Education Committee, also said she expects the bill to advance. “I think the body is ready to have that discussion,” she said.
At least one senator who opposed Lautenbaugh's bill last year has indicated he could change his position.
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said he is “willing to entertain” the new, more modest proposal.
He said he likes the idea of pairing the school board elections with city elections so voters can pay more attention to school board races.
“I just want to make sure we don't pass something like this and think we're taking care of all the achievement problems,” Nordquist said.
OPS board member Justin Wayne maintained his support for nine members instead of 12. But he wants to remove the term limits section.
New board member Danyelle Baratta said she has no strong opinion on the bill.
Lautenbaugh expressed confidence the measure can pass in time for the spring elections. “There's definitely a mood to get this done,” he said.
A bill can move from committee approval to final passage within 10 days. The bill could be passed with an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately upon the governor's signature.
But adding an emergency clause requires 33 votes on final passage, instead of the usual 25.
If the bill passes, school board members would need to decide whether to run. The deadline for current officeholders to file for election is Feb. 15. New candidates would have until March 1.
Lautenbaugh said he had planned for months to move school board elections to the same time as city elections, as is done in Lincoln. He said the change would bring more attention to the OPS races.
“It's just a bizarre coincidence,” he said, that he introduced the bill in the same week that the swearing-in issue happened. Bills can be introduced during the first 10 days of the session.
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