When Nebraska lawmakers proposed a bill earlier this year to aid private schools, the board of the largest public school district in the state unanimously voted to oppose it.
But over the last few months, a company run by Spencer Head, president of the Omaha Public Schools Board, has been paid to help the pro-private school campaign aiming to preserve the new law.
That law, which creates up to $25 million a year in tax credits for donors to private school scholarship funds, has prompted a prolonged public battle, as opponents including Nebraska’s teachers’ unions have mounted a campaign to try to repeal it at the ballot box.
Head defended the work this week, telling the Flatwater Free Press that there’s no conflict of interest between his public role and his company’s business dealings with Keep Kids First, the pro-private school group that’s attempting to stop the repeal effort. Head noted that he disclosed his firm’s ties to the campaign to an OPS attorney and some colleagues on the board.
Businesspeople shouldn’t “have to quit their job to be on the school board,” Head said.
But a government ethics expert contends the intersection between Head’s public and private roles is problematic.
“It’s an inherent conflict of interest because he should always want to ensure that his private financial interest in no way would ever be in conflict with that of the Omaha Public Schools,” said John Pelissero, an ethics scholar at Santa Clara University and himself a former school board president in suburban Chicago.
Head’s business ties to Keep Kids First bother several other school board members, though they acknowledge his actions don’t appear to violate the law or board rules.
“My personal ethics tell me… we shouldn’t be making a profit off something that will hurt public schools,” said OPS board member Bri Full.
The business of politics
Omaha-based EZ Politix offers political campaigns access to voter data and contact information that allows them to call and text prospective voters.
Head, the company’s CEO, told the Flatwater Free Press his firm received a dollar amount in the “low five figures” from a reseller providing Keep Kids First with texting outreach services.
Keep Kids First — better known by the motto “Decline to Sign” — paid the reseller, Traction Control, more than $17,000 through late July, according to campaign finance filings.
Head said he wasn’t involved in establishing the relationship between Traction Control and the campaign, but he has worked on some troubleshooting because “that’s my job.” Keep Kids First didn’t respond to a request for comment.
He added that EZ Politix’s work spans the political spectrum, and the company would just as soon have provided its services to Support Our Schools Nebraska, the petitioners on the other side of the issue.
A review of campaign finance reports shows the company has worked mostly for conservative causes and candidates, including the Omaha area’s congressman, Republican Rep. Don Bacon.
Head, a registered Republican, said his personal position on the private school tax credits hasn’t changed since he voted with the rest of the OPS board in January to oppose the bill that created them.
The school board hasn’t taken an official stance on the ballot measure to repeal the law, he noted.
Head said he consulted OPS attorney Megan Neiles-Brasch “about a month and a half ago.” She confirmed that his company’s business links to Keep Kids First didn’t violate the board’s rules or ethical code of conduct, Head said.
An OPS spokesperson, responding to a Flatwater Free Press request to interview interim Superintendent Matthew Ray, said no OPS staff would comment. OPS wouldn’t confirm details of Spencer’s discussion with Neiles-Brasch, citing attorney-client privilege.
Full and fellow board member Jane Erdenberger, both registered Democrats, said they have heard worries from constituents that Head’s business with the pro-private school campaign suggests he doesn’t have public schools’ interest in mind.
Erdenberger, who gathered signatures for Support Our Schools, said the appearance of Head’s ties to the opposition group undercuts the position the school board has staked on the private school tax credits.
“It’s a bad look for the board and the petition drive,” Erdenberger said.
Head should be more transparent with the public about his firm’s involvement in the campaign, Full said.
OPS Board Member Margo Juarez said she doesn’t have an issue with the choices Head makes as a businessman, but she doesn’t want his decisions to “be a negative reflection on the whole board.”
“Time will tell” if Head’s private dealings conflict with his work on the school board, Juarez said.
Board Member Ricky Smith declined comment for this story, as did spokespeople for Support Our Schools and the Omaha Education Association, a teachers’ union.
The four other OPS board members did not respond to a request for comment.
Head could have avoided entering an ethical gray area if EZ Politix had made a pre-stated arrangement with its reseller not to contract with organizations that advocate for private schools, said Pelissero, the ethics expert.
Local elected officials need to be attuned to how their private actions might be perceived by the public, he said.
“Government officials have a unique role in protecting and acting in the common good, and this just doesn’t look like that might always be in play,” Pelissero said.
Head said he didn’t make a public disclosure about his firm’ ties to the campaign because “it’s a business matter and not related to my service as a board member.”
Publicizing the private dealings during a campaign would have “created the narrative that the largest district in the state is split on this issue, when in fact we’re not and it’s just not true,” Head said.
“I get it, as a public official there is more scrutiny, and rightfully so,” Head said in a text message. “There is no ethical conflict here. I followed all the proper channels.”