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January again saw the beginning of the Legislature for 2019. New Senators were sworn in on the first day and voting for Committee chairs took place. Changes in seniority and committee chairs creates many changes in room assignments. In addition, the replacement of the heating and air conditioning system has one quarter of the building under renovation. Senators who would normally be on the first and second floors are temporarily moved into some of the upper floors of the tower. Before you come to visit your Senator it’s a good idea to visit our website or call to confirm the room number.
This year, 739 bills have been introduced, only seven of which I’ve introduced. The topics of my bills include banning tanning for persons under 19, design and construction standards for health care facilities, a sales tax holiday for back to school clothing shopping, texting while driving, solar panels and accessibility for voters. I will write about each one of these bills in future posts.
This year, I sit on two standing committees – Education Committee and Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. I have also been reappointed to the Midwestern Higher Education Commission. Committee hearings have started and will continue through March. In April we will go to full days of floor debate on bills and the state budget.
The Nebraska Unicameral is unique because, not only is it the only Unicameral with one house but because every bill introduced gets a hearing. In other states with a House of Representatives and a Senate, not every bill gets a public hearing. The Unicameral provides citizens the chance to weigh in continually from the beginning “idea” stages to the final product in the third round of floor debate. When the Legislature is not in session, Senators and citizens are working on gathering information on topics of interest and preparing for the next year.
In encourage you to contact me about any legislative bill or governmental concern you may have. Much information is available at www.nebraskalegislature.gov. You can search bills, look up information on Senators, find Committee reports and if you don’t know who your Senator is, there is a “Find your Senator” function. Please take advantage of this great resource. If you are reading this post on the Legislature’s website, you will also find many useful links on the right side of this web page. Thank you for allowing me to represent you in the Unicameral.
Legislature makes history and passes the repeal of the death penalty, LB 268
Today the Legislature debated and advanced LB 268, a bill to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. LB 268 faced a filibuster during its third round of debate on final reading. By legislative rule, it takes 33 votes to invoke cloture and cease debate. If a bill fails to gain enough votes for cloture, the bill is dead for the year. The Legislature voted 34-14 to cease debate and invoke cloture on LB 268. The bill passed Final Reading with 32 votes. I joined my colleagues in supporting the motion to invoke cloture and to pass the bill. Now we wait for the Governor’s response.
LB 599 Defeated on Final Reading
On Friday, the Legislature debated LB 599 on Final Reading. LB 599 would have allowed employers to pay young workers under the age of 18 a lower minimum wage than other workers. Because LB 599 amends a ballot initiative, it required 33 votes for passage. LB 599 did not acquire the needed 33 votes and therefore is dead for the year. I opposed LB 599 because it subverted the will of the people who spoke clearly on this issue in November when they overwhelmingly approved a higher minimum wage for all workers.
Bill to Grant Driver’s Licenses to DREAMers Advances to Second Round of Debate
On Thursday morning, the Legislature advanced LB 623, a bill to allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) youth, often referred to as DREAMers to receive Nebraska driver’s licenses. Currently, Nebraska is the only state in the country that does not allow DREAMers to obtain a driver’s license. DACA youth must have entered the United States before they were the age of 16 and prior to June 15, 2012. They must also be currently enrolled in school, received a high school diploma or an honorable discharge from the US Coast Guard or Armed Forces and cannot be convicted of a felony or pose a threat to national security or public safety.
LB 623 is supported by a broad coalition including Nebraska Cattlemen Association, Nebraska Restaurant Association, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Heartland Workers Center, and the League of Women Voters of Lincoln/Lancaster County. I joined 38 other senators in supporting the bill to allow these young Nebraskans, many of whom have spent a majority of their lives in Nebraska, to contribute to our economy and our communities.
LB 605 Advances with Additional Provisions for Counties
On Tuesday, the Legislature advanced LB 605 to Final Reading. As I mentioned in previous updates, LB 605 makes important changes to our criminal justice statutes based on the recommendations of the Council of State Governments and the Nebraska Justice Reinvestment working group. This working group consisted of members from the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
Since the bill was heard on General File in mid-April, I have worked extensively with Senator Mello, the bill’s introducer, and other senators involved in the working group to reduce the fiscal impact of LB 605 on counties. AM 1610 represented some of this work. The amendment clarifies that the special investigative committee created under the bill will also examine county costs as part of its charge. It also corrects some language Sarpy, Douglas and Lancaster counties have found problematic based on their experiences with recent juvenile justice reforms. I appreciate Senator Mello’s leadership on this issue and his willingness to work with me on behalf of Sarpy County and other counties across the state. I support LB 605 and look forward to voting for the bill when it comes up again on Final Reading.
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers would ensure the state recognizes civil rulings made by American Indian tribal courts under a bill prompted by a dispute about whether an athlete could participate in a high school wrestling program.
The wrestling disagreement was resolved, but supporters of the legislation said it pointed out the need to make clear that tribal rulings should be enforced as other rulings would in Nebraska.
“It’s about the tribal laws and state laws, and how they coordinate so that there’s not a difficulty that would trip a family up and ruin a season or a competition,” said State Senator Rick Kolowski, of Omaha, who proposed the bill.
The matter began in 2007 when John Keen tried to enroll his son, Taylor, in a Nebraska high school wrestling program.
Keen, 43, was given legal custody of his son Taylor after he and his wife divorced in 1992. All of the proceedings took place in a Cherokee Nation tribal court in their native Oklahoma. But Keen, who is part-Cherokee and part-Omaha, said he encountered problems after his son returned to live with him in the Omaha area for his senior year.
He enrolled Taylor at Elkhorn High School in 2007 after he moved from his mother’s home in Oklahoma, where he had lived for the last year. John Keen said he presented school athletics officials with a tribal court order to show that he had legal custody of his son, Taylor.
“They said, ‘This isn’t a court,'” Keen said. “I said, ‘Well sure it is.’ That’s where I was born and raised. It’s where my son was born, and it’s where his mother and I divorced. Everything we did had to stay with that court.”
Keen and his attorney said his son was rejected because of NSAA rules that generally require student athletes to live with a custodial parent. The rules are designed to keep students from “school-shopping” for a particular athletic program.
The matter eventually was resolved, but Keens said it cost him more than $10,000 in legal fees.
Keen said a friend from the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska called him recently and asked for money to help address a similar problem. Frustrated, Keen said he reached out to his attorney and Kolowski, who represents him in the Legislature.
Kolowski said he proposed the legislation is modeled after a state law in Iowa that recognizes civil judgments in tribal courts and allows the state to enforce them.
Taylor Keen was eventually allowed to wrestle once his father showed that he had legal custody of his son and that the two were living together. Velder said the association has recognized tribal-court rulings for decades, but officials weren’t able to confirm right away that Taylor Keen met the eligibility requirements. She declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality rules.
“In Nebraska, we would accept the tribal court as a court of competent jurisdiction,” she said. “I’ve been here for 33 years, and that’s always how it’s been.”
John Keen’s attorney, Ben Thompson, said the association initially refused to recognize the order but did so “after a lot of convincing” in a meeting with the group’s attorneys.
Thompson said the Nebraska bill includes several procedural safeguards to ensure that litigants in tribal court are given due process, and that the court was the proper authority to hear a case.
“Here in Nebraska, I think we’re a bit behind the curve on these issues,” Thompson said. “I’m hoping we can catch up and join the 21st century.”
Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said the proposal represents an important step in ensuring tribal courts are acknowledged by the state.
The courts have gained recognition in recent year, “but it’s a really slow battle,” gaiashkibos said. “The status quo wants to remain the status quo.”
It has been a year since the devastating school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Across the nation, lawmakers have spent the year devising ways to prevent a similar tragedy, but only a fraction of the laws proposed in the immediate aftermath of the school shootings have been enacted.
Families and schools across Nebraska are looking to their lawmakers for leadership. We need to show our commitment to keeping our students and their schools safe. As an educator for over 40 years and the founding principal of Millard West High School, I know what kind of security it takes to run a school, especially a school of over 2,000 students. That number of students exceeds the population of many towns in Nebraska. Just this year alone, Millard spent over $20 million on school security improvements.
When I talk about school security, I am referring to: infrastructure (doors, locks, cameras, walls); security staff (school resource officers, guidance counselors, mediators); and school culture (anti-bullying resources, positive behavior models for teachers, reduced class sizes, and conflict resolution programs). All of these measures require funding and they are crucial to maintaining a safe school that is free of violence, abuse and fear.
These expenses and experiences are not unique to Millard. Regardless of geography or size, superintendents across Nebraska are facing the same dilemma of keeping students, educators and parents safe, without taking resources away from their student’s education, teachers’ salaries, or maintenance of their buildings.
So what can we do in Nebraska to improve our school security? Last session I introduced legislation (LB 346) to allow school boards, with a 2/3 super majority vote, to raise their maximum levy 1 cent to use for school security improvements. This legislation is at the moment stalled in the Revenue Committee with 4 yes votes, 3 no votes and 1 undecided.
This interim, I have been working on resolution (LR 208) to further explore the need for funding school security improvements, and see if there is a way to do so through the Education Committee. I believe one immediate option would be to create a state grant program in which schools could apply and receive funding for school security improvements. Long term, the Legislature may want to consider a school security adjustment to the state aid to schools formula.
The first step is to have the Nebraska Department of Education conduct a statewide assessment of school security – needs as well as costs. This would be used to create a state minimum standard of school security and help us target money to schools that need the most help. I plan to introduce legislation this year that will require us to take this first step.
I will continue to put pressure on the Revenue Committee to advance my school security bill (LB 346) out of committee. I ask that you help me by reaching out to the four Senators who refuse to advance this important and timely piece of legislation: Senators Charlie Janssen, Beau McCoy, Paul Schumacher and Pete Pirsch. Tell them to let us debate this legislation with the full legislature.
If the lawmakers in this state don’t do anything, and God forbid we have more school violence and tragedies, then all eyes will be on us for not taking bigger steps to protect Nebraska’s youth.
LINCOLN (AP) — Lawmakers will consider a bill next year designed to help low-income families participate in Nebraska’s state-sponsored college savings plan.
Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha said Tuesday that he will introduce the measure, which would remove a barrier for low-income families.
“If students save for college, no matter how small that amount is, they’re more likely to go to college,” Kolowski, a retired high school principal, said Tuesday at a legislative hearing. “The earlier they start to save, the earlier they get on that track.”
The measure would exclude the college savings plan, scholarships and work-study income from the formula that determines whether a person qualifies for public benefits. The formula disqualifies applicants who have too many assets or too much income.
The Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee convened the hearing as part of a legislative study of the state plan. Kolowski said his measure would also exclude Aid to Dependent Children, child care subsidies and a home energy program for low-income residents.
Nearly half the families participating in Nebraska’s state-sponsored college savings plan make at least $100,000 per year, according to the State Department of Revenue. Families with an adjusted gross income of more than $100,000 accounted for nearly 45 percent of the plan’s participants. Families who made less than $50,000 per year accounted for less than 7 percent.
Nebraska’s “529 plan,” named for a provision of the federal tax code, allows families to save for education expenses in a tax-advantaged investment account.
More than 12 percent of minors in Nebraska are enrolled in a savings plan, said State Treasurer Don Stenberg. He said his office has already worked to promote the savings plan statewide. The Treasurer’s Office uses drawings and a series of scholarships to promote the plan, he said.
Reaching out to low-income families “is part of the challenge,” Stenberg said. “It’s important to note, though, that not every low-income family will stay a low-income family throughout their lifetime. A lot of folks are getting out of college. I think you have to take into account that some of the folks who may not be able to put money into a savings account now may be able to five years from now.”
The plan charges a 0.30 percent fee on investments — a 0.27 percent management fee for First National Bank, which manages the plan, and 0.03 percent that goes to the state for staff and operating expenses.
Nationally, the cost of higher education has increased faster than incomes have, said Aubrey Mancuso, a policy coordinator of the advocacy group Voices for Children. The average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year institution in Nebraska has increased by 16 percent over the past five years, while median income increased by 2.2 percent without accounting for inflation.
Mancuso said saving early in a child’s life has been shown to increase the odds that the child will want to go to college.
“It’s harder for people to get through the door, and those who are getting through the door are increasingly paying for it with loans,” Mancuso said.
“One thing that’s become clear on this is that interventions at the high school level are starting too late.”
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
As the anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., approaches, a number of people testified Wednesday on the need for enhanced school security.
For many, it’s about being able find ways to afford technology and building changes while not taking money from instruction.
For others, such as Faith Hutcherson, a freshman at Lincoln East High School, it is about looking deeper for the true cause of school shootings — bullying and harassment of students and society’s celebration of violence in the media and video games.
Hutcherson said it would cost nothing, and require no legislation, for people to raise standards of how they treat one another.
Sarah Forrest, with Voices for Children in Nebraska, suggested more comprehensive approaches to school violence. What has been shown to be effective are approaches that take into account children’s developmental needs and home experiences, she said.
Building relationships is important, as is access to mentors, counselors, therapists and behavioral health services. So are implementing new disciplinary approaches and conflict resolution, and providing training for school resource officers.
“Nebraska really needs to think holistically about the safety and security issues,” Forrest said.
Joseph Wright, director of security for Lincoln Public Schools, said the issues schools face are nontraditional and will be difficult to solve with traditional funding sources.
Schools are faced with having to replace doors, windows, steps and offices that haven’t worn out to create safer entries and hallways. The public expects camera systems in buses and buildings, and radio networks for better communication, Wright said.
“The cost for the above improvements as well as added personnel who would staff threat management teams, or be extra eyes and ears at athletic events, is well outside standard school budgets,” he said.
More than 10,000 school and community functions are held each year at Lincoln schools after the last bell rings. That means security is a community issue, not just a district issue, he said.
LPS would include money in its proposed bond issue to enhance security in schools. Officials say about 30 public schools in Lincoln still do not have secured entrances, although they have people who check visitors in as they arrive.
The district would like each school to have visitor check-in areas separated by locked doors, security cameras and communication tools for crises, such as radios or phones in classrooms.
The interim study resolution (LR208) was brought by Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski. In the 2013 session, he introduced a bill (LB346) to allow school boards with a two-thirds super-majority vote to raise their maximum levies by one cent to be used for school security improvements. The bill is stalled in the Revenue Committee.
Kolowski said the needs are great and the money usually short. The Legislature could help.
Steps that can be taken include creating a state grant program for security improvements, adjusting the school aid formula to allow schools to pay for security upgrades, and having the state Department of Education conduct a statewide assessment of school district security needs and their costs.
A state standard of school security could be developed from that assessment to be used as a target for state support.
One of the nearly 50 shootings at schools, colleges and on school buses that have taken place in the past three years was at Millard South High School. An assistant principal and the student shooter died in the early 2011 incident, and the principal was seriously wounded.
Angelo Passarelli, administrator with Millard Public Schools, said the district has implemented more security measures since then, including a door buzzer system that locks doors during school hours.
A bond issue recently passed there includes $5 million for upgrades to the district’s security, including a unified security system. A typical high school has 40 to 50 doors to monitor, Passarelli said.
“All of these systems will help us, probably not totally make us impenetrable,” he said. “It won’t stop events like happened in 2011, but certainly will add to the layers of security that we have in our school system.”
Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or firstname.lastname@example.org — You can follow JoAnne’s tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.
I am pleased to hear that Governor Heineman supports property tax relief for Nebraskans by increasing funding for the Property Tax Credit Act, which gives state property tax rebates to every landowner and homeowner. (article included below)
But we could do better. Currently the rebates are spread thin because they include big box stores (Walmart and Target) and out-of-state landowners.
I am crafting legislation that creates a separate rebate program for only residential homeowners that puts real money back into the hands of hard working Nebraskans.
Lawmakers welcome Gov. Heineman’s shift to include property taxes in tax-relief push
PUBLISHED THURSDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2013 AT 1:00 AM / UPDATED AT 4:16 AM
LINCOLN — Complaints about high property taxes in Nebraska appear to be sinking in at the State Capitol.
Gov. Dave Heineman on Wednesday signaled that any tax-relief push needs to include reducing local property taxes, and not just cuts in state income tax rates.
It was a shift in focus welcomed by some state senators, who have long said that the biggest tax problem in the state is ever-rising property taxes. Such gripes dominated last week’s public hearings by a legislative panel studying state tax changes.
“This is a change,” said State Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, who is leading the Legislature’s Tax Modernization Committee. “Maybe our hearings have given some other information for the executive branch to look at.”
Heineman had been aiming darts at Nebraska’s state income tax rates, which he says scare away good-paying jobs because they are higher than all but one neighboring state, Iowa.
High property taxes, the conservative Republican has said in the past, were an issue for someone else: local school boards, county boards and city councils that levy property taxes.
At a press conference Wednesday, the governor called on the Nebraska Legislature to work with him to pass a “balanced” plan of income tax cuts and property tax relief during the 2014 session — the last session for Heineman before he leaves office because of term limits.
“Rural Nebraska wants property tax relief and urban Nebraska wage earners need income tax relief,” he said. “This is going to be priority No. 1.”
State Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte, a member of the tax modernization group, applauded the governor’s new, dual focus.
“We found out that (high) property taxes are a pretty big item out here,” Hansen said, of public hearings held in Scottsbluff, North Platte and Norfolk.
Other reaction was more cautious.
Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, who is chairman of the state budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he’s glad that the conversation now includes property tax relief. However, Mello said he also wants to make sure that any tax proposals are “fiscally responsible.”
Earlier this year, Heineman pitched a plan to eliminate state income taxes and to pay for it by rescinding several sales tax exemptions.
A stampede of business, agriculture and nonprofit groups descended on the State Capitol to oppose Heineman’s plan. The groups said that losing their tax exemptions would make products made or grown in Nebraska uncompetitive and would force jobs out of the state.
The governor said Wednesday that he has backed off that plan but remains convinced that the state offers too many sales tax exemptions.
He said the state should dip into its cash reserves to finance tax relief. That rainy day fund now stands at $679 million, or about 17 percent of annual state spending.
Mello said he anticipates that the Legislature will be cautious about using the reserve funds because there’s still uncertainty about the economic future of the state and because such cash reserves are more wisely used for one-time expenses, not the ongoing costs of a tax cut.
The state’s cash reserves helped sustain state services during the recent recession. Nebraska, unlike some states, didn’t have to raise taxes.
“My taxes are high, just like everyone’s taxes are too high,” the senator said. “However, the challenge we have is reforming a tax code to ensure fairness and stability, while generating enough tax revenue to fund state priorities into the future.”
The governor’s comments come as the tax committee is midway through a series of public hearings across the state on how to modernize the state’s tax system to better reflect today’s economy.
The group’s final hearings will be held Oct. 17 in Omaha and Oct. 18 in Lincoln. But those testifying at the initial hearings, including several farmers and ranchers, complained mainly about high property taxes. Few griped about high income taxes. Several said that sales taxes should be raised to offset reductions in property taxes.
Heineman, in comments this week, said he would support increasing the state property tax rebates now offered to land- and homeowners through a program launched in 2007.
This year, that credit returned $115 million to taxpayers, the same amount since the program began. The tax break amounted to about $107 for the owner of a $150,000 home. If that home was in the Omaha school district, the credit reduced the homeowner’s total property tax bill by 3.3 percent.
At his press conference Wednesday, Heineman displayed a handful of posters indicating that Nebraska’s property taxes are 13th-highest in the nation and that state income taxes rank in the top 16. Other charts showed that Nebraska, unlike most other states, still levies a county tax on inheritances and doesn’t offer extra tax breaks for retirees. Another showed that the state was among the 10 “least friendly” states for retirees.
“Our citizens don’t even need these charts,” the governor said. “They know our taxes are too high.”
Other recent rankings have placed Nebraska among the top five best places to start a new business. But Heineman said those were about business climate, not taxes.
The governor, when pressed, said it was too early to provide details on whether tax cuts would require cuts in state spending. The tax committee is scheduled to issue its recommendations by Dec. 15, and the 2014 legislative session doesn’t begin until Jan. 8.
“It’s only October,” the governor said. “I want to work together with (the Legislature). I don’t care who gets the credit.”
Legislators on the Education Committee will begin a statewide tour this week to discuss K-12 school financing and look for methods to bring more property tax relief to Nebraskans.
Wanted: your best ideas for funding Nebraska schools
By Martha Stoddard / World-Herald Bureau
LINCOLN — Round two of Nebraska’s great tax debate kicks off Wednesday.
Last week the Tax Modernization Committee toured the state to collect ideas and opinions about revamping property, sales and income taxes.
This week it will be the Education Committee hitting the road for a series of public hearings.
The official topic of the hearings is state funding of K-12 schools.
But State Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who is chairwoman of the Education Committee and sits on the tax committee, expects to hear many concerns repeated from last week to this one.
In some ways, she said, this week’s hearings will be an extension of the tax committee hearings.
“There aren’t very many places we can look for revenue,” she said.
Schools are the top users of local property taxes, accounting for more than $1.9 billion of the $3.2 billion in property taxes levied for 2012.
That means discussions about reducing property taxes inevitably bring up talk about school finance.
Providing property tax relief is a key goal of the state school aid formula. The formula also aims to equalize educational opportunities for students from property-rich and property-poor districts.
Nebraska’s 249 school districts now share nearly $1 billion in state aid, which comes largely from state sales and income tax revenues.
School aid is the largest-single item in the state budget, and small increases in the aid total can mean big headaches for legislative budget writers.
In anticipation of the public hearings, the Education Committee floated the idea of reducing property taxes through the use of “local option income and/or sales taxes.”
The idea was deliberately scarce on details and definitions because committee members wanted to encourage broad discussions on the concept.
Sullivan said committee members hope to hear pros and cons of various policy directions where the concept could lead.
“We want to see if it’s something educators and the public think is worthy of digging deeper,” she said.
The committee members also hope to hear from people with new ideas about school finance or who can point out problem areas in the current formula.
The Education Committee study grew out of pitched battles during the recent legislative session over how to divvy up state school aid.
The committee is working to develop recommendations for the next legislative session.
Sullivan said the committee has not yet endorsed any particular plan or reached consensus on any recommendations.
She said any proposal for 2014 legislation likely will be modest. Bigger changes would be considered over a longer period.
It would not be “fair or realistic” to expect that any proposed revamp of the formula could be introduced, considered and passed that quickly, Sullivan said.
In Nebraska, the largest portion of school aid aims to fill the gap between what schools need to educate children and what they can get from property taxes and other resources.
The idea of using local option income and sales taxes addresses the resources side of the formula.
Other concepts put forth by the committee address the way school needs are calculated. Changes in those calculations could affect the total amount of aid required for schools, as well as how the aid dollars get divvied up.
Currently the state determines need based on past spending by school districts.
One suggestion would base the need calculation on a per-student figure. Another would include a minimum amount to cover fixed costs, such as the cost of a principal and a school building.
A third proposal would use some measure of the state’s economic health to set school spending limits. The Legislature sets the limits now.
The Education Committee hearings are set for Hastings, McCook, Dunning, Omaha, Crete and Macy.
PUBLISHED TUESDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2013 AT 1:00 AM / UPDATED AT 2:48 AM
As Omaha school districts complete their strategic plans, the Legislature’s Education Committee embarks on two weeks of public hearings across Nebraska to seek input on the future of education in this great state.
From Hastings to McCook, Lincoln to Grand Island and Omaha to Crete, I look forward to hearing from the people of Nebraska.
Don’t hesitate to call my office for more information if you are interested in attending any of these hearings: (402) 471-2327.
PUBLISHED MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2013 AT 12:30 AM / UPDATED AT 12:19 AM
Call them strategic plans, master facilities plans or visioning processes.
No matter the nomenclature or the emphasis, there’s a whole lot of planning going on in school systems across the metro area — and probably will be for some time to come.
Part of the planning surge stems from a relatively new crop of superintendents — and in the case of the Omaha Public Schools, a mostly new school board — seeking to draw a road map to the future. Eight of the metro area’s 12 public school superintendents started their jobs within the past four years.
OPS is not alone. Several other metro area districts — from Bellevue to Elkhorn and Springfield Platteview to Westside — have recently completed or are in the midst of planning processes. The Archdiocese of Omaha’s Catholic Schools Office is working on a plan, too.
While schools routinely engage in planning, pushes for accountability through standards and assessment tests have created a need and a means to measure progress.
“Without a clearly identified direction and prioritization, it doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard and aren’t making progress, but we don’t really know where we’re making progress,” said Mark Evans, OPS’s new superintendent.
Here is some of the planning and goal-setting that is going on in the metro area:
OPS is about to launch a top-to-bottom needs assessment and begin work on a four- to five-year strategic plan. The district has been working from a document based on school board goals from more than a decade ago.
Efforts underway or imminent in metro-area school districts:
» OPS is about to begin a top-to-bottom needs assessment and four- to five-year strategic plan.
» Elkhorn updated its master facilities plan, including buildings needed to meet expected enrollment growth.
» Westside is working to update its vision and analyze facilities and programs.
» Papillion-La Vista is preparing to review plans and goals, bringing district stakeholders together by next summer.
» Bellevue’s school board will discuss, Oct. 7, whether the district is ready to move to long-term planning.
» Ralston has completed a three- to five-year technology plan and is working on plans in two other areas, aiming to have all three in place by next fall.
» Springfield Platteview is in year two of five-year plan, out of which grew the district’s new name, a one-to-one iPad initiative and proposed $35.7 million bond issue.
» Douglas County West has launched review of educational programs and facilities.
» Millard developed a strategic plan in 1990 and updates it frequently, most recently last year. The evolving plan led to successful bond issue in May.
» Omaha Archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office is preparing strategic plan and ensuring that each of its 70 schools has one.
Evans said he expects to hear feedback on matters ranging from school security to building upkeep. The input from staff, parents and students will be used to craft clear goals, such as benchmarks for ACT scores, narrowing the achievement gap among ethnic groups or creating a technology plan for schools.
“Identifying a direction and course will be critical for us to show and demonstrate success,” Evans said.
The school is also conducting a study of its buildings. The district has built several new schools and renovated its oldest buildings, but those built in the 1950s or ’60s are starting to show their age, Evans said.
The initial plan should be completed by late January or February. But the district’s three-year deal with Cross & Joftus, a Bethesda, Md., consulting firm, includes periodic follow-ups and help implementing changes.
The total cost — a little more than $653,000 — will be shared equally by OPS, the Peter Kiewit Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Andy Rikli, who became superintendent July 1, said there is an increased emphasis on planning in education, driven in part by the accountability movement.
“If a school’s going to adequately address all those pressures, they have to have a road map,” he said.
Papillion-La Vista, he said, has a number of well-crafted plans in areas such as human resources and curriculum and instruction. Now the district wants to bring them under one unified plan so it can start talking about long-term goals and aligning resources with those goals.
He plans to start discussing planning with the school board today and spend the school year getting ready. He hopes to bring in someone to lead the discussion. Sometimes it can be difficult for people within an organization to take a truly objective look, he said.
Patrick Slattery, superintendent of archdiocesan schools, said strategic planning is just good practice, and the kind of thing that businesses have been doing for decades. The archdiocese has been going through the process over the past two years, with the help of a Wisconsin-based company. Now his office is refining its response to that vision and providing a template for schools to prepare their own.
Brett Richards, Springfield Platteview’s superintendent since July 2012, said it’s too easy to get distracted without a plan.
With accountability, he said, districts are getting good at looking at data and seeing where they need to improve and at setting goals and determining how to measure them.
The district, once known as South Sarpy, went through a strategic planning process several years ago. Its current name was one result of it.
The district’s mission calls for creating 21st century learners, Richards said. An initiative to provide each junior and senior high school student with an iPad grew out of that. The district also is looking to increase college credit offerings.
It also is looking at its facilities. Science labs and media centers aren’t meeting today’s needs, Richards said, and safety features are lacking. Earlier this month the school board agreed to put a bond issue before voters to fund building renovations and additions.
Douglas County West recently began assembling a steering committee to launch a review of its educational programs and facilities.
Most of the district’s buildings date from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, said Superintendent Dan Schnoes, now in his second year. They weren’t built to accommodate today’s technology or programs such as special education.
The study also will look to see whether programs need updating and at enrollment growth, which has picked up in recent years. The district’s nearly $42,000 contract with BCDM Architects, an Omaha architectural firm, will take the district through the study to a bond issue, if it goes that far.
The rapidly growing district did its first plan at least 25 years ago and has updated it about every five years. At first the plans largely dealt with growth, said Superintendent Steve Baker. Over the years, however, they’ve become more closely tied to curriculum and educational programs. The availability of student achievement data has aided that shift.
“It’s gone from ‘It feels like we’re doing a good job’ to ‘Either you are or you aren’t,’ ” he said.
The DLR Group this year updated the district’s master facilities plan for less than $20,000.
Blane McCann, superintendent since July 2012, said the district’s vision-setting process will look at enrollment trends, education programs and building functionality.
Westside’s facilities study will explore how educators will teach in the future and whether buildings are geared to meet that. It will focus in particular on the district’s elementary schools, the newest of which dates from 1975.
Its middle and high schools have been updated within the past decade, and the high school’s design already fits the school’s college-like modular schedule. The study will be conducted by the DLR Group and two other firms for a total of $223,000.
The district, led by longtime Superintendent Keith Lutz, has been guided by a strategic plan that was written in 1990 but is updated frequently. The most recent update came last year.
The $79.9 million bond issue voters approved in May emerged from an earlier version of the constantly evolving plan.
The school completed a three- to five-year technology plan and is working on plans in two other areas. It aims to have all three in place by next fall.
It has had an annual goal-setting process the past few years. On Oct. 7, the school board is scheduled to discuss whether the district is ready to move on to more long-term planning.
Forums offer chance to give feedback on your school
Is your child struggling under a too-heavy homework load?
Do you want to know how the district will phase in new technology in coming years?
Are you concerned that too much money is spent on administrators instead of classroom instructors?
If you’ve got opinions about those or other school-related subjects, Omaha Public Schools officials want to hear them.
“I’m of the mindset you have to look at the whole picture: the good, the bad and the ugly,” OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said.
As OPS crafts its first strategic plan in years, parents, staff and community members will get the chance to comment on the district’s strengths, weaknesses and future direction at a series of community forums scheduled the week of Oct. 20.
The forums will include a short presentation explaining the strategic planning process. Then participants will break into small groups to identify what the district has done right or gotten wrong and what future direction it should take. Anonymous surveys will be available to allow participants to weigh in without identifying themselves.
“We want to make sure we’re processing this in a way that doesn’t make mom, dad, staff members or community members feel uncomfortable,” Evans said.
Those who can’t attend the October forums can still weigh in via those anonymous surveys and the community forum website MindMixer.
Community forum dates are:
» Oct. 20, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Teacher Administrative Center board room, 3215 Cuming St.
» Oct. 22, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., North High School, 4410 N. 36th St.
» Oct. 23, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., South High School, 4519 S. 24th St.
» Oct. 24, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Burke High School, 12200 Burke Blvd.
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