She is the active mom in a parent-teacher association, the Omaha school board president with an endorsement from the teachers union.
Marian Fey studied education in college with plans to become a teacher. And she has used her passion for education to defend Omaha Public Schools on some of its biggest issues, including fighting a plan that would have divided OPS into three school districts.
Her opponent in this month's election, Woody Bradford, had the most money of any OPS school board candidate when campaign finance reports were last filed. He also has endorsements from Gov. Dave Heineman, former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, Avenue Scholars President Ken Bird and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Bradford studied law and is running for public office for the first time. He says the OPS board needs new leadership because the board isn't leading the district.
The race to represent Subdistrict 3 — Dundee and northwest Omaha — became one of the most interesting this week with Heineman, the state's top Republican, making the unusual move and choosing a side in a local school board race.
Fahey is a longtime Democrat. Bradford is an independent. Fey is a Democrat. The race is officially nonpartisan.
The candidates' differences aside, both say they have clear priorities that have been shaped by what's happened in the past.
Fey, 44, joined the board in 2011 and became its president after Freddie Gray resigned from the board in January.
Fey was among the eight board members who voted to keep Gray as the board's president last August after Gray's handling of the Nancy Sebring situation.
Gray and the board's legal counsel didn't tell other board members that Sebring, OPS's superintendent-to-be, had resigned from her last job after she sent racy emails to her lover on a school computer. Sebring resigned from the Omaha job when the emails became public.
Fey said she voted to keep Gray because Gray had appointed a temporary board committee to study how the board got information from its attorney and how the board could create clear policy and direction for board officers.
The committee didn't produce much, Fey said, so she ran against Gray for board president in January.
Fey also later changed her mind on a high-profile board vote about the district's sexual harassment policy.
In June 2011, she was one of nine members who voted to keep its policy on reporting possible sexual harassment, a policy that let school officials investigate complaints before calling police. Under that policy, if OPS officials didn't think sexual harassment had occurred, they did not forward the complaints to police. That happened twice with allegations made against a former OPS middle school teacher who was later convicted of child abuse and sexual assault by communication device.
In April 2012, though, Fey and the OPS board changed the policy: Law enforcement authorities are now to be alerted within 24 hours after a student alleges sexual misconduct by teachers or staff members.
“I can only make a decision based on the information I have at the time,” she said. “As time went on, I had more information and a greater understanding of what needed to happen.”
Fey, as president for the past three months, said she's tried to improve communication among board members themselves and in OPS.
Earlier this week, she called a special board meeting to talk about the district's sexual harassment reporting policy with Douglas County's top law enforcement officials.
Fey and Bradford agree that the board could challenge district officials more often.
Bradford said the board needs to take charge of the district. For years, good teachers and strong principals have been working in schools without as much district support as there could be.
What's going on in high-achieving schools, such as Miller Park Elementary School in north Omaha, should be going on everywhere, Bradford said.
“You have to have the board take on what works and make it a policy districtwide,” he said.
The board hasn't been examining what's working and what isn't, he said. Instead, he said, board members were frequently defending themselves.
Bradford also wants to improve communication on the board.
If elected, he wants board members to go on a retreat to understand each other as members and as people and to start working together as one board, not nine different members.
Bradford also wants to take the district's almost $500 million general fund budget and make it understandable for everyone.
He also has one other large goal for OPS: make sure its graduates don't need remedial math or reading help. Bradford said he frequently hears from businesspeople that some OPS graduates can't do such basic work. “We are not going to be a viable community if that continues much longer.”
Contact the writer:
email@example.com, 402-444-1074, twitter.com/jonathonbraden
Public offices held: None
Education: Dartmouth College, University of California, Berkeley, Law School
Family: Married, four sons
Occupation: Director, Nebraskans for the Arts
Public offices held: OPS board, 2011-current
Education: Bachelor's degree in elementary education, Kansas State University
Family: Married, four children
Religion: United Church of Christ
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?
Bradford: Yes, OPS should expand its career education programs. The district should bolster its partnerships with such organizations as Metropolitan Community College. Young people can make a very good living in the trades. The high schools should add career-education classes. Sending career-education kids to one school and other students to another isn't the best way to create community. Students should be at school together. I'd want people rubbing shoulders.
Fey: Removing vocational technology education classes from the high schools was a mistake. Adding them back to high schools should be considered, as should expanding partnerships with area organizations such as Metropolitan Community College. Encouraged by what's going on with Benson High School's career pathway magnet. (The school is adding a program this fall that will let students get a head start on becoming an electrician.)
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?
Bradford: To even out enrollment, schools need to be able to identify and market themselves to families and students. For example, part of Benson High's magnet theme meant to help the school draw students is “decision science.” How do you sell that to a student? (Benson, once one of OPS's largest high schools, now has the lowest enrollment of the district's seven high schools. Bradford graduated from Benson in 1958.)
Fey: The board could help make all the high schools appealing to all students. Any efforts to even out the high schools' enrollments should not depress any school's enrollment; they should raise the levels of all OPS high schools and help spread out enrollment. To succeed, buildings need strong leaders, good ideas and support from the district.
When test scores at a school are far below the district average, is it appropriate to replace the principal or other staff?
Bradford: No. It might be appropriate to replace a principal but not because of low test scores.
Fey: The decision to remove a principal or other building staff needs to be a part of a bigger conversation about district goals and its long-term plan. The conversation would include what the district should do when building goals aren't met.
Should teachers be paid extra — bonuses — when students score well on standardized tests?
Bradford: Run the district like you would a business. If you have a terrific employee, that employee should get paid more. Teachers should get paid more if they are engaging families and helping students thrive to the best of their abilities.
Fey: Merit pay efforts have not worked elsewhere. Wants to look at what does work more carefully before recommending anything.
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?
Bradford: Schools need to engage all students in something they want to do, even if it's an extracurricular activity, such as chess club. Get students interested in something they can achieve.
Fey: Teachers should not teach all students the same way. They should know their students' abilities and make sure they're teaching to that student's level, whether those students be in groups or by themselves.
Should the district set a minimum grade-point average for students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities?
Bradford: Yes, because it is a wonderful way to get kids to understand what they need to achieve. The grade-point average minimum should be high enough so it's not easy for students to reach.
Fey: Wants more information on how setting a minimum grade-point average would affect OPS students, such as how many would be affected by having to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average.