Recent events have shaped this spring's state-ordered Omaha school board primary into the most competitive race since 1978.
The Legislature passed a bill last month shrinking the board and mandating new elections. Candidates say the quick passage of that measure, plus recent Omaha Public Schools controversies, led them to run.
They also were recruited by friends and groups, including the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, that previously had stayed out of OPS races.
The chamber reached out to alumni of its leadership programs as well as its young professionals, said Wendy Boyer, senior vice president of community investment and advocacy.
“There was clearly an important opportunity here,” said Boyer, who declined to name names.
Boyer and many of the candidates said it is time for change in OPS, with the new nine-member board being seated in June and a new superintendent starting July 1.
Others said they were prompted to run because of how the board handled the Nancy Sebring situation as well as the surprise $1 million payment to retiring Superintendent John Mackiel.
“It feels like there's a groundswell of change,” said Lacey Merica, one of six candidates in subdistrict 8 in southeast Omaha.
The April primary will feature 39 candidates who filed for the nine open board seats. Friday was the filing deadline.
Every subdistrict has at least three candidates; only two in each subdistrict will advance from the April 2 primary.
The last time the field was this crowded was 1978, when 38 people filed for six seats. This spring's group far surpasses recent primary counts.
For instance, last May, 13 people filed for six seats. In 2006, six incumbents ran unopposed.
This spring's group also includes only seven of the board's 11 incumbents, guaranteeing more turnover for a board that has been known for uncontested races and long-serving incumbents. Incumbents not running are Nicole Walker-Nash, Barbara Velazquez, Mary Morrissey and Shirley Tyree. Tyree has been on the board since 1993.
The April primary and May election were forced by Legislative Bill 125. The bill, which became law last month, shrank the board from 12 members to nine and put every seat up for election. In future years, the board will return to staggered elections.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh introduced the bill because he wanted a more effective board. He said recent controversies showed that change was needed.
Many of the candidates The World-Herald talked to agreed with Lautenbaugh: OPS needs some change.
When the bill became law, Yolanda Williams started thinking that now was the time to run. A friend had told her to think about it in 2006, but Williams kept putting it off. Maybe 2016, she thought.
“Here's an opportunity for you to voice your opinions, voice your beliefs,” said Williams, who filed in northeast Omaha's subdistrict 1.
Williams, 38, already works with schools as a program coordinator for the nonprofit Partnership 4 Kids. Other candidates have similar experience, including Juliana Garza, a youth attendance navigator at the Latino Center of the Midlands.
Garza, 36, works with Omaha South High students who have missed 10 to 20 school days and tries to address why they have been absent so often.
“I see this as an opportunity to actually do something greater for my community,” said Garza, who filed in subdistrict 8 in southeast Omaha.
But some candidates want to bring a different perspective to the board.
Omaha attorney Woody Bradford said it's time he pays back OPS. Bradford, 72, a 1958 graduate of Omaha Benson High, also said the board must bring in outside groups more than it has in the past.
Lou Ann Goding wants to make sure the board is spending taxpayer money well. Goding, 49, has worked in finance much of her career and still works part time, helping companies prepare financial statements.
Because of past events, such as the $1million Mackiel surprise, she questions how OPS handles its money.
Other candidates also plan to bring their business experience to the board, if they advance out of the April primary. Eighteen of the 39 will advance to the May 14 election.
Joseph Misiunas, a media consultant for Yellow Book, wants the board to be more transparent and prioritize its needs. “I'm going to bring that business approach to how the board does activities,” said Misiunas, who is partly running because of how the Sebring situation was handled.
Matt Scanlan sees this as the right time for this much-talked-about change to actually happen.
Scanlan, a project manager for Woerner Wire Works, wants the board to create a vision with goals that everyone can support.
“The timing couldn't be better,” he said. “I feel very strongly that we can accomplish this working together, and you don't have to look at the child that lives in a lower-income area and say, 'Sorry we failed you.' ”
World-Herald chief librarian Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.
Thirty-nine candidates have filed for the nine seats on the Omaha Public Schools board. The election is on the same schedule as the city elections — an April 2 primary and a May 14 general election.
Here are the candidates:
» SUBDISTRICT 1: Five people filed: James English, a retired Omaha Public Schools teacher and administrator who lost in November; Yolanda Williams, elementary school program coordinator for the nonprofit Partnership 4 Kids; Aja Anderson, a community health educator for the Douglas County Health Department; LeDonna White York; and Larry Taylor. Incumbent Nicole Walker-Nash did not file, after being elected to the board for the first time in November, running unopposed.
» SUBDISTRICT 2: Niokia Stewart, Marque Snow and Morghan Price filed. Stewart and Snow could not be reached for comment. Price is a Metropolitan Community College full-time student and volunteer executive director of the anti-violence group Enough is Enough. Incumbent Shirley Tyree did not file.
» SUBDISTRICT 3: Incumbents Marian Fey and Bambi Bartek filed. They face three challengers: Bill Hoff, a retired salesman; Woody Bradford, an Omaha attorney; and Michael Warner, who is disabled and not currently working but is running to make sure special-needs students have a voice on the board.
» SUBDISTRICT 4: Incumbent Justin Wayne is running again. Eric Ewing, the younger brother of Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, also has filed, along with Jill Brown, an assistant professor of psychology at Creighton University.
» SUBDISTRICT 5: Incumbent Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum has five challengers: Scott Zimmerman, administrator for a private early childhood education facility; Angel Martin, a freelance writer; Lou Ann Goding, who works part time preparing financial statements for companies; Nikki Diamantis, owner of Platinum Builders, a custom home building company; and Jeff Miller, owner and president of SpeedBinder, a manufacturer of custom loose-leaf binders. Tompkins Kirshenbaum defeated former Omaha State Sen. Patrick Bourne and three other candidates in her first run last year.
» SUBDISTRICT 6: Incumbent Nancy Kratky has three challengers: Barbara Daughton, a retired OPS administrator and teacher; Joseph Misiunas, a media consultant for Yellow Book; and Matt Scanlan, project manager for Woerner Wire Works, a north Omaha business that fabricates steel for highway projects in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota.
» SUBDISTRICT 7: Danyelle Baratta faces Andy Allen, a computer technician for the Army Corps of Engineers, and Katie Underwood, project manager with Olsson Associates. Baratta defeated Allen in November.
» SUBDISTRICT 8: Lacey Merica, an insurance claims adjuster; Eugene Hoffmann, Air Force retiree; William Forsee, a retired high school teacher and former member of the Metro Community College board; Mark Walenz, who could not be reached for comment; Meg Cordes, associate nurse manager at the University of Nebraska Medical Center; and Juliana Garza, a youth attendance navigator for the Latino Center of the Midlands. Incumbent Barbara Velazquez did not file.
» SUBDISTRICT 9: Incumbent Sarah Brumfield filed, along with Brian Villafuerte, a Bellevue Public Schools substitute teacher; Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan, a volunteer community advocate; and William Gaughan. Incumbent Mary Morrissey did not file.
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