Lou Ann Goding and Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum each looks to bring an analytical eye to the Omaha Public Schools.
Win or lose on May 14, each said she wants to help improve a system that both say has many bright spots and to improve student achievement.
Each touts business and leadership skills and a history of volunteering in schools, including a stint as a parent-teacher association president.
Kirshenbaum has served as a substitute teacher in most of the district's middle and high schools. Goding, meanwhile, has won support from the teachers union and the third-place finisher in the primary.
Kirshenbaum, the incumbent elected last November and sworn in in January, said she already has been asking questions. Foremost in the Burke High graduate's decision to run was a concern that Subdistrict 5 families with older children were leaving OPS at the high school level. She wants to find out why, make a change and bring the schools' successes to the public's attention.
“I am pushing OPS staff to get the information, to be open to change,” she said. “Whether I win or lose, I want this to happen.”
Goding, with three children in OPS schools, said she's running because of her belief in the district and her commitment to the Omaha community, evidenced by her volunteer work in schools and with the Friends board of Children's Hospital & Medical Center, the Fontenelle Forest Guild board and the nonprofit group Completely Kids.
She said Omaha can be a better city if the school district improves. She wants people to see Omaha as a robust community in which they can get a good education for their children wherever they go.
“Whatever their personal ceiling,” she said of students, “let's hit it. And let's see where our community grows.”
Goding has been endorsed by the Omaha Education Association and the Douglas County Republican Party and backed by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Jeff Miller, who polled third in the primary, now is supporting her.
Kirshenbaum, who has two children in OPS, has been endorsed by the Douglas County Democratic Party.
Since February 2002, Kirshenbaum has worked part time in human resources at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, focusing on budgeting, planning and employee policies. She worked as an OPS substitute teacher from 2009 to last December.
She served a term as PTA president at Picotte Elementary. There, she led a strategic planning process, setting a mission and surveying parents and students about needs.
When she first filed for election, she'd never been involved in a political campaign, so she did her research. Last November, she outpolled former State Sen. Patrick Bourne.
Recently, she asked OPS staff how it obtained school climate surveys from parents. She learned they were given at third-quarter conferences, attended largely by engaged parents. She wants to know why parents are unhappy with their high school options. Many choose Central, but other choices should be just as good.
“Let's figure out how to recruit students,” she said. “How are you going to change it?”
She emphasized the need for a strategic plan for the district. Then the board could target decisions based on the plan, with the goal being student achievement.
Many of the subdistrict's voters know little about the district, she said. Their focus is the wise use of tax dollars and making sure students graduate. The district needs more communication with and feedback from parents and taxpayers, as other area districts do.
Goding has 25 years of experience in public accounting and private industry. At Arthur Andersen & Co. she not only became audit manager but also reviewed client operations.
She later worked for a catalog company, where she ran the accounting department. For the past 15 years she has worked part time as a consultant to a family office.
She served two terms as PTA president at Fullerton Magnet Center. She looked at the group's mission statement, then got input from members and surveyed teachers. The PTA made a number of changes, including switching from a schoolwide assembly to providing grade levels funds to offer smaller programs based on curriculum.
Creating a strategic plan is “an obvious first” in order for OPS to create a path forward and measure progress, she said. She also has a lot of questions about spending.
Other priorities include student safety and communication. She said she would review district policies with an eye toward ensuring that all students are safe in their environment.
She would work to communicate any adjustments the board made to the public so parents have what they need to be engaged and taxpayers know dollars are used effectively.
She's also interested in kindergarten readiness and wants to evaluate ways to return elementary schools to more of a neighborhood approach. OPS students benefit from the opportunity to travel at the high school level, she said, but neighborhood schools keep younger kids close to friends and give parents more opportunities to engage.
Contact the writer:
Lou Ann Goding
Occupation: self-employed as a part-time financial consultant
Public offices held: none
Education: Bachelor of Science in accounting, Bob Jones University, 1986
Family: married, three children
Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum
Occupation: human resources professional and substitute teacher
Public offices held: two terms on SID 370; Omaha school board since January
Education: Bachelor of Arts degree, University of Nebraska at Kearney; Master of Business Administration, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Family: married, two children
Q&A with the candidates
The World-Herald is providing interviews with candidates for the Omaha Public Schools board, asking them for their views on several issues facing the district. For other coverage of this and other school board races, check omaha.com/ops.
Should OPS increase career education offerings and, if so, how? With a new technical high school, more career-education classes at each high school or other ways?
Goding: Every child should have the opportunity to prepare for college or opportunities to start preparing for a career. The district needs to evaluate options, whether it's more offerings at individual schools, a hybrid model with traditional classes and a career center, or a stand-alone career high school.
Kirshenbaum: It's needed. The district needs to survey area companies' needs, study other districts' best practices and figure out how to do it. The district also needs to look at the career center and determine whether it's meeting needs.
Reputations and enrollment have suffered at some OPS high schools. How do you go about restoring those that are lacking and begin balancing enrollment at OPS high schools?
Goding: The board and administration need to figure out what the district needs to provide students, how it can support academics and behavior and support building staff in appropriate discipline. The district also needs to build community among the student population and support among parents.
Kirshenbaum: That's one of the issues that brought her into the race. Look at North High before and after it became a magnet center. See what's worked and what hasn't. The district has to promote its programs, starting at the elementary level. She saw great lesson plans and great classroom management when she worked as a substitute, and the district needs to publicize that.
When test scores at a school are far below the district average, is it appropriate to replace the principal or other staff?
Goding: Wouldn't consider test scores alone. Principals need to be carefully evaluated with input from parents and teachers over a period of time. Some simply may not be effective in a particular building. The district also needs to support principals and teachers while maintaining accountability and discipline.
Kirshenbaum: Wouldn't look just at test scores but would consider score trends, principals' evaluations and other factors: whether they have effective teachers, back up their teachers, ensure positive student behavior. If there's not improvement over time, then it might be that the principal would need to be replaced or moved to another position.
Should teachers be paid extra — bonuses — when students score well on standardized tests?
Goding: Open to discussions about rewarding teachers who go above and beyond. But doesn't believe it should be based on test scores.
Kirshenbaum: Isn't against pay for performance but wouldn't base it on just one measure. There may be other ways to reward big gains through acknowledgments or celebrations.
The No Child Left Behind Act has focused attention and resources on the lowest-achieving students. How would you ensure that other students aren't overlooked?
Goding: Building staff need to carefully evaluate students. Those with a wide range of abilities may need to consider differentiation. It's important for buildings to look at different methods and for administration to support their choices.
Kirshenbaum: OPS has good special education and gifted programs. It needs to look at the middle. Improving achievement should be part of each building's plan and the district's strategic plan.
Should the district set a minimum grade-point average for students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities?
Goding: There should be some minimum GPA. Look at options for a minimum, possibly move up to a target. The district would need to support students and coaches.
Kirshenbaum: Probably would be in favor of it but needs to see the pros and the cons. It's a great idea to raise standards, but what if students drop out?