With the help of a new state law, Omahans on Tuesday voted for change.
Voters picked a new mayor. And they sent six new school board members to join incoming OPS superintendent Mark Evans, who will take the reins with as fresh a start as is possible in public life.
Evans and the new board must seize this rare opportunity to build a new and lasting culture in Nebraska’s largest school district, one that values openness, accountability and public input — and above all, prioritizes student achievement.
Priorities, organization and administrative accountability are the reinforcements that the district’s thousands of hardworking teachers, students and staff need from Omaha Public Schools’ headquarters, enabling them to focus on fostering the love of learning that powers academic achievement at all income levels.
This new OPS leadership needs to study and more clearly communicate the challenges of educating a less-prepared population than their peers and to research and replicate what’s working inside and outside of the district. They need to continue working to narrow the achievement gap between impoverished students and those of means.
This task will be difficult. It could seem daunting if not for another truth revealed by the results of this year’s elections: Omahans care deeply about their children, their schools and their future.
When the need arose, 39 people stepped up and offered to serve, filing as candidates for the nine unpaid board seats.
The eventual winners spent more time and money and door-to-door effort on these school board races than most can remember. They talked with parents and voters, with neighborhood groups and at community forums.
Voters, too, paid close attention, studying the issues, meeting those candidates and taking time to cast ballots in an off-year election. That means all are invested in the half-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise of educating our kids.
The mayor’s race offered a similar glimpse of the public’s mood for change. Mayor-elect Jean Stothert dispatched an incumbent and now will be Omaha’s first female mayor. Voters have entrusted her to follow through on her pledges to make city government more user-friendly, efficient, predictable and transparent. She already has reached out to members of the police and fire unions, and she will need their help to solve the city’s long-term financial problems.
Among the OPS incumbents who survived Tuesday was a change agent, Justin Wayne, who drew public attention to the previous board’s shortcomings. And current board president Marian Fey commendably said in her successful campaign that she wants to lead OPS to “more efficient, effective and transparent processes.”
That needs to happen in the wake of the old board’s foot-dragging on the timely reporting of suspected sex abuse, the secrecy surrounding Nancy Sebring’s email situation, the board’s surprise at discovering the $1 million payout it had negotiated with a departing superintendent and the $13 million spent on outside lawyers over five years.
“A lot of new faces, it’s a good thing for kids,” said Chris Proulx, head of the OPS teachers union.
Indeed it is. It’s time to seize the moment.