The future of the Omaha area will be shaped in powerful ways by the progress, or lack of it, made by the Omaha Public Schools.
Responding to a series of problems, the Legislature revamped the Omaha school board. Now, it's crucial for Omaha voters to take a close look at the candidates and elect nine capable, professional-minded men and women to lead Nebraska's largest public school district.
All nine OPS subdistricts will have a primary on Tuesday, and we will look at each of these races in the coming days. In the first three, these candidates deserve to advance: LeDonna White York and Yolanda Williams in Subdistrict 1; Marque Snow and Morghan Price in Subdistrict 2; and Marian Fey and Woody Bradford in Subdistrict 3.
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Subdistrict 1: LeDonna White York, principal at Beals Elementary School, has a strong background on educational issues, child development and parental involvement.
York highlights key needs for OPS, including a better focus on early childhood development as well as ways to boost collaboration with parents (which was the topic of her doctoral dissertation in education).
York has pledged that if elected, she will resign as principal of Beals. That is important, since it would be inappropriate for a principal to be an employee of the superintendent and at the same time his boss as a member of the board. York is to be commended for being willing to step down from a significant paying position in order to take on unpaid board duties.
Yolanda Williams stands out for her knowledge of issues in Subdistrict 1 and for her skill in working with parents.
In 2000 Williams took a court-ordered anger management class, a condition of probation after pleading guilty to assault in a domestic dispute with her children's father. That experience, she says, was a turning point that led her to end old habits, stabilize her life and put herself through college, where she earned associate and bachelor's degrees.
She now works as a program coordinator for a nonprofit group, Partnership 4 Kids. She stresses the need for greater parental involvement and for OPS to build on worthwhile “out of the box” ideas being used by OPS teachers and principals.
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Subdistrict 2: Marque Snow works as the South YMCA's after-school teen and youth director, and many of the students in the program are at-risk youths. This experience has given him insight into the needs of young people. Snow has visited a number of schools in Subdistrict 2 to deepen his knowledge of the school system.
A priority, he says, is to strengthen the preparation of OPS graduates for the working world. The public has lost confidence in the Omaha school board, he says, and if elected he would work to restore that confidence.
Morghan Price, the volunteer executive director of the anti-violence group Enough Is Enough, demonstrates qualities that would serve her well on the school board: strong understanding of and involvement in her subdistrict; an ability to analyze the issues facing Subdistrict 2; independent thinking; determination; poise.
Her work at Enough Is Enough and with the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance has helped Price learn in detail about a wide array of issues affecting low-income families in regard to violence, health issues and economic challenges. Price has participated in a training program provided by the United Way of the Midlands to prepare people, particularly minorities, to serve on the boards of local nonprofits.
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Subdistrict 3: Marian Fey, who became president of the school board this year, has worked to streamline the communication process at OPS during her two years on the board, to promote a more effective and transparent board. Especially welcome has been her initiative to provide podcasts of the board meetings.
Partnering with the community and parents can boost student achievement, Fey says. She notes that the district must identify what it can and cannot do, then work with the community to fill in gaps.
Fey points out that it's easy to say that the school board sets policy and the superintendent implements it. But, she adds, “In order for that to work, you have to have a good partnership with no surprises and communication every step of the way.”
Woody Bradford is a lawyer with past experience as president of the Omaha Schools Foundation, the Urban League of Nebraska, Girls Inc. and the Omaha and Nebraska Bar Associations.
He emphasizes the importance of engaging students through early childhood education. He says a more constant effort is needed to ensure parental involvement and a flexible curriculum for kindergartners in various levels. He also underlines the importance of preparing OPS graduates for jobs.
It should be noted that Michael Warner, a third candidate in the Subdistrict 3 contest, rightly shines a light on issues concerning special-needs students.
In Tuesday's OPS primary, these candidates deserve to advance: LeDonna White York and Yolanda Williams in Subdistrict 1; Marque Snow and Morghan Price in Subdistrict 2; and Marian Fey and Woody Bradford in Subdistrict 3.