Omaha school board, former state wards, Hagel in spotlight

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January 31, 2013 - 5:39pm

The Omaha school board, youth who age out of foster care, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing to be Defense Secretary were in the spotlight Thursday.

The Omaha school board’s latest problem is that half its members were sworn in after the legal deadline, meaning there may need to be a special election to fill the board. But even before that, the board was beset by controversies: One, over its handling of hiring a superintendent who withdrew before taking office after discovery she sent sexually explicit emails on her former employer’s computers; another, over a large retirement payout to the previous superintendent; and consistently, over an achievement gap between poor minority students and white students.

Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh is chief sponsor of the bill, LB125, to reduce the number of board members from 12 to 9 and redraw the districts. "I’m not going to stand here and say everybody on the OPS board now is somehow bad or shouldn’t be there. That’s not the case," Lautenbaugh told his colleagues. "But this district needs a shock to the system."

Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook questioned the relevance of the change Lautenbaugh is proposing. "The question that I have in my mind, that I would like the rest of the body to consider…is how the size of the board is going to impact those achievement outcomes. I don’t see a causal relationship, and I just wonder at times what the true motivation might be for redrawing maps and reintroducing this bill at this time."

Cook is African American. When Lautenbaugh, who’s white, introduced a similar bill two years ago, he was accused of racist and sexist motivations by Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray. Gray is an African American whose wife Freddie, also an African American, was on the board.

Lautenbaugh denied racist or sexist motivations. He told senators Thursday he has no ulterior motives, using an analogy he learned in law school. "Some will be concerned and say ‘What are your true motives here?’ Well, my contracts professor used to say ‘When you hear hoofbeats, don’t look for zebras. Assume it’s horses.’ Sometimes things are what they seem to be, and what we stand up and tell you they are," he said.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, also African-American, lent his support to Lautenbaugh, using an historical parallel. "This is not based on a vendetta. But even if it was, it’s right," Chambers said. "Is Jack the Ripper, if he could be found a good man? No. But if you need an operation and his experience in ripping made it possible for him to perform it and he’s the only one who could and everybody agrees he can, would you say ‘Well you’re Jack the Ripper. I don’t want you to perform my operation.’? Crazy!"

And Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, who’s white, used a nautical metaphor to argue that a smaller board could be more responsive. "Smaller boards are like speedboats. They’re nimble and maneuverable. And larger boards are like aircraft carriers. They move slowly, they change direction with difficulty. They’re cumbersome," Avery said.

The Legislature then voted 37-4 to give the bill first round approval.

Thursday afternoon, members of the Health and Human Services Committee heard numerous supporters of a bill, LB216, to extend housing, medical and other assistance to former state wards between the ages of 18 and 21. Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill says currently, such help is available only if they’re in college. Former state ward Amanda Huxoll was one of those supporting the bill. Huxoll said after high school, she enrolled at McCook Community College. She had a small savings account, a part-time job, and her own apartment. But between work and study, she said, she was exhausted. And when she couldn’t pay her bills, "I had two options: quit school, or sleep in my car. I dropped out, went to work full time, and have been living paycheck to paycheck ever since. Maybe this bill would have enabled me to stay in school and get a degree, Huxoll said.

Huxoll said she was lucky to have a place to stay, and now has a job she loves. But she said many former wards wind up in homeless shelters or in the criminal justice system.

The only one to oppose the bill was Thomas Pristow of the Department of Health and Human Services. Pristow questioned a consultant’s estimate that extending services to former state wards would cost $2.8 million next fiscal year. He said the Department calculates it will cost more than $11. 5 million.

While state senators were considering those questions, much national attention was focused on Washington, DC, where a hearing was being held on President Obama’s nomination of former Nebraska U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to be Defense Secretary.

Among those questioning Hagel in the Senate Armed Services Committee was Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer. While some senators suggested Hagel’s views have changed, Fischer said she was concerned they had not.

"You continue to hold, I believe, extreme views far to the left of even this administration," Fischer said. She said in a private meeting, Hagel said that if given the opportunity to recast his votes on Iranian sanctions, he said he would continue to oppose those sanctions.

Hagel has said he opposed unilateral U.S. sanctions, but supported multilateral sanctions against Iran.

Nebraska’s other U.S. Senator, Republican Mike Johanns, said he’s waiting to review Hagel’s testimony and any other information he submits before deciding whether or not to support his nomination.

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