This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
The Omaha Public Schools Board of Education has approved amendments to the district’s federal pandemic relief funds, including a proposal to put funds towards stipends for full-time staff and part-time staff in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school year.
At a nearly three-hour board meeting Monday night, board members discussed the proposed stipends, which would come from the district’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency (ESSER) funds. Charles Wakefield, chief operations officer at OPS, also answered board members’ questions ahead of the 8-1 vote to approve the amendment. Board member Marque Snow voted against the amendment, saying there should have been more time for community input on the proposal before an official vote.
Some members of the Omaha Education Association questioned the reasons for the stipend. OEA president Robert Miller asked how the stipend would affect future salary negotiations, and said some OEA members think the proposal appears to have strings attached such as expectations for staff to work additional hours.
Rachel Benzoni, who worked for the school district for seven years and returned to OPS last year, said she left the district as of June 1. She said the stipend does not address issues for teachers who endured the working conditions of the past two school years in the pandemic and left the district.
“The exodus [of staff] will continue to happen without long-term solutions which are focused on students and teachers,” she said.
Board member Nick Thielen said the stipends are not meant to be the sole solution to problems impacting teachers, but are rather one way to support staff during the pandemic.
“This is money in the pocket of our teachers and we should not be delayed any longer,” Thielen said.
The board’s vice president Jane Erdenberger echoed Thielen’s remarks. “It makes no sense to me that because we cannot solve all the problems right now we do not take action,” she said.
Board member Spencer Head said while he’d vote for the stipend, going forward he’d like the board and district to address the root causes of why staff are leaving.
“The problem is more than just funding for the staff,” he said.
If approved by the Nebraska Department of Education and bargaining units, all full-time staff would receive $4,500 and part-time staff working 20 or more hours a week would receive $2,250 in three installments each year for the next two school years. The first payment would be issued to staff on Sept. 1.
District leaders first announced the proposed two-year stipends for staff members on June 1. The decision to allocate ESSER funds to teacher pay comes after projections of 500 OPS staff members to resign from the district by July 1, increasing already existing staffing shortages. Although staffing shortages are issues in classrooms throughout the country, educators leaving OPS have reported feeling unfairly compensated for their overtime work and under-appreciated by district leadership.
At a press conference June 1, district superintendent Cheryl Logan said the district projects approximately 230 certificated positions will remain unfilled across the district in August. The number will adjust as the district continues to hire qualified staff, officials said.
In September 2021, the OPS Board of Education approved a plan for how the district would allocate $280 million in ESSER funds. Student and staff well-being remain one of five areas of focus in the allocation, along with teacher recruitment and student academic programs. The bulk of the money for the proposed staff stipends will be taken from funding previously allocated for infrastructure needs, said Charles Wakefield, chief operations officer at OPS.
Two school bus drivers also spoke during public comment, raising concerns about their contracts with Student Transportation of America and OPS. They asked if ESSER funds would be allocated to contracted employees like themselves. Jettie Davis, who has been an OPS bus driver for 13 years, said she’s feeling devalued as a bus driver.
“Why do I drive these routes? Because I love children, I get more gratification by seeing that child get an education,” Davis said. “But I worry about burnout. Who’s gonna compensate me?”
What happens next for the proposed stipends?
Now that the Board of Education approved the amendment, the Nebraska Department of Education must give final approval to any changes in the plan to utilize ESSER funds. Bargaining unit leaders in Omaha Public Schools would also need to agree to accept the stipend.
Pending approval, the first of three installments of the stipend would go into effect Sept. 1 for staff members working the 2022-2023 school year.