Voters soon will cast ballots to elect all nine members of a revamped Omaha school board. This is a pivotal moment. Certainly, much of the focus properly belongs on the candidates’ ideas for boosting student achievement and closing the gap between white and minority kids.
At the same time, this election also gives the public the chance to make a clear statement about the type of school board leadership Omaha needs: A board that asserts itself strongly in setting policies, promotes transparency and accountability, and draws advice from — but doesn’t surrender decision-making authority to — staff and legal counsel.
As voters size up the 39 candidates in the weeks before the April 2 primary, a case currently in Douglas County District Court illustrates problems stemming from a school board that has been too dependent on lawyers and staff.
It’s the case of an Omaha-area man charged with child abuse, sexual contact and enticement with four former middle school girls. A jury will decide whether he broke the law. But the evidence presented so far leaves no doubt that school officials should have turned the matter over to police from the outset.
They did not.
As World-Herald staff writer Todd Cooper’s reporting has detailed, OPS officials said they believed they had to perform their own investigation to determine whether there was reasonable cause to call in authorities. The middle school’s principal received the initial complaint in 2009. Police did not learn of the matter until October 2010, when the mother of a third student contacted Child Protective Services, which called Omaha police. OPS then placed the teacher on paid administrative leave.
Police interviews with the girls led to felony charges being filed against the teacher. In April 2011, OPS told the man that his contract would not be renewed.
Court testimony showed that when the first complaint was made by one of the students in 2009 — the student alleged that the man twice asked her for oral sex and once shoved his crotch into her face — the OPS Human Resources department was supposed to investigate.
It did not.
“There was no investigation in Human Resources in regards to” the complaint, an OPS Human Resources official testified this week. An HR administrator said he had no training in interviewing sexual abuse victims.
In the summer of 2011, the school board looked at the district’s policy. This was a chance to closely align school policy with state law, which said that those who work with children are required to report possible abuse of children.
The board did not.
Rather than change its policy, the board voted 9-2 to keep it. But court testimony this week shows that the district did a poor job handling these cases under that policy. There appeared to be more concern for procedures than the young girls. The Legislature in 2012 further nailed down requirements that all Nebraska school districts report such complaints to law enforcement. OPS did not oppose that legislation and finally voted to change its reporting policy.
Omahans are now hearing this history in a Douglas County courtroom, and it offers a lesson for the future. Voters need to elect a school board that breaks decisively with past practices and embraces a responsible, proactive approach to school governance.
The next board must be energetic and firm in asserting control of policy-making. Staff and lawyers need to provide services and advice, but they should not encroach on the board’s authority. When problems arise, the district needs to respond openly and constructively, not with legalistic excuses.
Individual OPS schools, to their credit, are making progress in a number of ways. But too often that progress has been blocked from view by the board’s ill-considered decisions, embarrassing soap operas and bureaucratic missteps.
OPS needs to leave all that behind. That’s why this is such an important election. That’s why it’s crucial for Omahans to take a close look at the 39 candidates and then make wise choices for the OPS board.