They're young, inexperienced and in charge of governing the largest school district in the state.
With those traits in mind, the Omaha Public Schools board gathered Friday for a retreat aimed at strengthening communication, clearing up confusion over the board's role and preparing to tackle the large-scale policy issues likely to come out of the district's strategic plan.
Originally planned as a privately funded, two-day conference in Atlanta, board officials scaled down the meeting to an all-day training session at Gallup's riverfront campus. The retreat was led by Scott Joftus and Otis Rolley, consultants from Cross & Joftus and UPD Consulting, the two firms steering OPS's first strategic plan in years.
All but two of the nine-member board were elected for the first time in May, part of a new guard voted in after the Legislature shrank the size of the OPS board in part to force new leadership for the troubled school district.
The new board settled in just before the district's new superintendent, Mark Evans, arrived after two years of interim leadership and the hasty departure of one superintendent dogged by a racy e-mail scandal.
The new board skews much younger than its precursors — the election brought the average age of the board down to 31 from 58 — and has a decidedly business bent.
“For the most part, we don't have a lot of education experience,” board member Lou Ann Goding said in an earlier interview. “There's two of us that have education backgrounds and seven of us that don't, that have more of a business background.”
An analysis of the board compiled through strategic plan interviews found members engaged and enthusiastic to promote change.
But it also found they lack training, a clear understanding of complex budgeting and state funding issues and the ability to focus on big-picture topics instead of micromanaging the day-to-day operations of the district. There's also a degree of mistrust and clique-ish behavior among board members and an inability to always communicate clearly with one another, the analysis said.
“There's nothing wrong with that, but it's a reality,” Rolley said.
Members agreed that they're continuing to feel out their roles on the board, often through trial and error.
“I think it's pretty accurate,” board member Matt Scanlan said. “I'm trying to realize my role as a board member. We need to give (Evans) clear-cut discussions of what we expect of him but resist getting too far into the details of 'Johnny's mother called and she's not happy.' ”
In an interview earlier this week, Evans said figuring out what duties fall under the scope of a board is difficult for any governing body, much less one as new as OPS's.
“The truth is, one, they're volunteers, two, they're not trained administrators, and three, that's what they hired us to do,” he said. “Figuring that out is a big part of it.”
The board has held numerous workshops in past months to get up to speed on complicated subjects like the district's $500 million operating budget, its student transportation plan and teacher evaluations. Members also sat in on a two-hour board training seminar last month led by a representative from the Nebraska Association of School Boards.
Board President Justin Wayne said the board is somewhat hamstrung now as it waits to see what priorities arise from the strategic plan, which will provide a blueprint for the district's operations and goals over the next five years.
“We don't have a strategic plan, so we don't know our goals yet,” he said. “It's easy to micromanage when you don't have a big picture to focus on.”
Evans and the consultants said these challenges aren't surprising or a knock on the current board.
“I've never seen this kind of transition, and I've been working in this field for three decades,” Evans said. “A new board, a new superintendent, the dysfunction of transition. This is very unusual.”
During the remainder of the day, board members worked through an exercise on how to communicate and listen better, discussed a case study involving several iterations of a Houston school board that oversaw sweeping changes to the low-performing district and reviewed qualities of effective board leadership.