This election for the Omaha school board is anything but routine. The vote on May 14 is the next big step in solving problems that were so serious the Nebraska Legislature had to step in, blow up the old board and start over.
Before heading to the polls, it's worth recalling some of those problems:
The board dragged its feet in changing Omaha Public Schools policy on when to report possible sexual assaults of students; the board's past president and lawyer failed to tell other members when they learned their new superintendent had used Des Moines school computers to send sexually explicit emails; the board was surprised to find out that it owed $1 million to retiring superintendent John Mackiel; and the board has spent more than $13 million on outside lawyers over the past five years.
Omahans now have the opportunity to elect a new, smaller board — one that can put the focus back on student performance, on closing the achievement gap between white and minority students and on leading the state's largest school district into a new era of stability, confidence and accountability.
After interviewing all the candidates and hearing them in public forums, The World-Herald finds that these candidates stand out for their potential to bring this much-needed change: Yolanda Williams in Subdistrict 1; Marque Snow in Subdistrict 2; Woody Bradford in Subdistrict 3; Justin Wayne in Subdistrict 4; Lou Ann Goding in Subdistrict 5; Matt Scanlan in Subdistrict 6; Katie Underwood in Subdistrict 7; Lacey Merica in Subdistrict 8; and Sarah Brumfield in Subdistrict 9.
Subdistrict 1: Yolanda Williams. Williams explains a range of issues in Subdistrict 1. She stands out for her skill in working with parents. A program coordinator for a nonprofit group that works with children, Williams describes the benefits of greater parental involvement. A lot of innovative ideas are being used by OPS teachers and principals and need to be shared, she says.
Subdistrict 2: Marque Snow. Snow, who works as the South YMCA's after-school teen and youth director, shows insight into the needs of young people. He has taken the initiative to visit schools in Subdistrict 2 to deepen his knowledge of the school system. A key need is for OPS to strengthen the preparation of its graduates for the working world. Snow is thoughtful in describing the need to rebuild public confidence in the board.
Subdistrict 3: Woody Bradford. Bradford, an attorney, has a demonstrated record of leadership in the community, including the Omaha Schools Foundation, Urban League of Nebraska and Girls Inc. His election would bring a pragmatic, common-sense perspective to the school board. Bradford, who faces the board president in this race, offers a practical assessment of the challenges facing OPS and the need for an open and accountable school board. He emphasizes the importance of engaging students through early childhood education. He says a more constant effort is needed to ensure parental involvement. And he says the real measure of OPS is how well its graduates are prepared for jobs and the future.
Subdistrict 4: Justin Wayne. Wayne, the incumbent in this subdistrict and a labor relations manager with Union Pacific Railroad, advocated for a revamped board structure — even at the risk of his own seat. He deserves considerable credit for standing up time and again to press for reforms, often in the face of criticism from other board members. In 2011, he was one of only two Omaha school board members who voted to end the district's policy of conducting its own investigations into sexual assault allegations rather than reporting them to police straight away. He has been proven correct on that issue, as well as on his calls for greater transparency, reining in legal costs and seeking budget efficiencies.
Subdistrict 5: Lou Ann Goding. Goding shows strength in two important ways: Budget skills and knowledge of OPS issues. She has 25 years of experience in business finance and currently works part-time preparing financial statements for companies. Goding has a notable, wide-ranging record of civic involvement, including school activities, and has demonstrated consensus-building skills. She offers thoughtful ideas on strategic planning and board-superintendent relations.
Subdistrict 6: Matt Scanlan. Scanlan stands out for his exceptional understanding of OPS issues and the clear, accessible language he uses to explain issues and solutions. This is a hardworking, levelheaded candidate who has done his homework. Scanlan, an executive at an Omaha steel-fabrication firm, gave thoughtful answers on OPS issues during a candidate forum. Asked about teacher evaluations, for example, he ably described key points for properly analyzing teacher performance.
Subdistrict 7: Katie Underwood. Underwood, a civil engineer, comes from a family of educators and has served on several nonprofit boards in Omaha. Underwood speaks forcefully and knowledgeably about the district's need to close the achievement gap between white and minority youth. OPS can benefit greatly, she says, by supporting early childhood efforts such as Educare. She demonstrates a confident approach to budgets, drawing on her professional experience.
Subdistrict 8: Lacey Merica. Merica, an insurance claims adjuster with an MBA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, stands out for the impressive way she addresses a wide range of OPS issues. She is well-informed in analyzing the board's past failures. She does a good job offering positive ways forward on community outreach and boosting academic achievement. One way to do that, she suggests, is for OPS to see if it can move its hiring date for new teachers, since the date comes later than in many other districts.
Subdistrict 9: Sarah Brumfield. Brumfield, employed with an information technology services company, is an incumbent who first was elected last November. She stands out in this subdistrict contest for the way she speaks knowledgeably about the full breadth of issues OPS needs to tackle. Vocational education should be a higher priority for OPS, Brumfield says. Another need is boosting parental involvement. She explains issues in a practical way, whether it's the proper role of the board's legal counsel or how to improve the user-friendliness of the district's website.
In the May 14 elections, voters can seize this important opportunity for positive change at OPS by electing these candidates:
Yolanda Williams in Subdistrict 1; Marque Snow in Subdistrict 2; Woody Bradford in Subdistrict 3; Justin Wayne in Subdistrict 4; Lou Ann Goding in Subdistrict 5; Matt Scanlan in Subdistrict 6; Katie Underwood in Subdistrict 7; Lacey Merica in Subdistrict 8; and Sarah Brumfield in Subdistrict 9.