LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers could start debate next week on a bill to shake up the Omaha Public Schools board.
A legislative committee voted Friday to advance the proposal to the full Legislature.
The action puts Legislative Bill 125 near the front of the line for legislative debate and gives it a shot at becoming law within two weeks.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, who introduced the bill, told colleagues that the changes need to happen quickly.
He said he expects a legal challenge will be filed soon against the current board members, alleging that they were not properly sworn in and that their seats are thus vacant.
The challenge could force a special election, Lautenbaugh said. He touted his bill as a better option.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the bill “is not perfect, but it might allow the OPS board to get through a crisis.”
Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams of York said there is a good possibility that LB 125 will come up for debate next week.
He is scheduling first-round debate on bills in the order they come out of committee. He said he hasn't decided about scheduling second- and third-round consideration.
“I know that this bill is time-sensitive, and I will be sensitive to that,” Adams said.
LB 125, introduced by Lautenbaugh, would shrink the OPS board to nine members, down from 12, and force all board members to stand for election this spring.
The election would be held at the same time as the Omaha city elections, which would mean tight timelines for potential candidates.
The deadline for current officeholders to file for election is Feb. 15. New candidates would have until March 1.
A bill can move from committee approval to final passage in less than 10 days. LB 125 has an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately upon the governor's signature.
But adding an emergency clause to a bill requires 33 votes on final passage, instead of the usual 25.
Avery said he believes the measure could get 25 votes now, but he is less certain about the higher number.
Lautenbaugh was more optimistic. He said opposition has dwindled as more people understand the current board's predicament.
The World-Herald reported two weeks ago that under state law, the OPS board must swear in newly elected members “before the first Monday in January.”
If members are not sworn in before the first Monday, the law says, their elections are void and the board must fill the resulting vacancies.
The four new and two returning board members elected in November took the oath of office on the first Monday of the month, making their status unclear. One of the returning board members, former board President Freddie Gray, resigned from the board this week.
Questions about the previous board members also have arisen, because the board has traditionally sworn in new members on the first Monday of January.
Lautenbaugh said “legal action” on the swearing-in issue is coming. He said he expects it to be filed by the Douglas County attorney, the state attorney general or a member of the public.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said Friday that his office is still investigating.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said he plans to support the bill because lawmakers “need to get it done and move on.”
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said he most likely will support a nine-member board, although he has concerns about how the new OPS board districts were drawn and about the short time until elections.
He also said he's not convinced that changing the board size will fix accountability problems or boost student achievement.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop raised similar questions.
“I will be interested in hearing why nine people makes the place better than 12,” he said.
Government committee members voted 5-2 to advance an amended version of the bill, with one member absent.
The amendment removed a provision that would limit school board members to two consecutive terms.
Another part of the amendment said that the Legislature will draw the district boundaries initially but that redistricting would be handled by the Douglas County election commissioner, with approval from the school board, after the 2020 Census.
Lautenbaugh said he would be open to an amendment moving elections back to even-numbered years after this spring, if that would help gain support.
Joining Avery and Lautenbaugh in voting for advancement were Sens. John Murante of Gretna, Scott Price of Bellevue and Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins.
Voting against the bill were Sens. Norm Wallman of Cortland and Russ Karpisek of Wilber. Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk was absent.
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