The Mackiel Million this week stunned not just the Omaha school board, which should have known, but also the folks on the front lines — teachers.
Teachers routinely reach into their own pockets to buy supplies, classroom decorations or other items. They are told to greatly reduce paper copying for worksheets at school because of costs. They dedicate themselves to a profession in which a high salary was never the goal — yes, by their own choice.
But a $1 million payout to retiring Superintendent John Mackiel? Holy mackerel.
That retirement benefit, set up in his contract years ago but tallied only recently and revealed Monday, is on top of his yearly $200,000 pension for as long as he lives. Before retiring this summer, he was paid about $413,000 each of the past two years.
In defending the million-dollar payout, Mackiel said it should be considered in context — Omaha Public Schools has more than 7,000 employees, about 50,000 students and a general fund budget of about $475 million.
Fair enough. But also consider it in other contexts:
The payout far exceeds any other local superintendent's retirement benefit. It may be one of the highest nationally. And Mackiel's payout comes from a school district in which two-thirds of the students are from families poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
Among teachers, the million-dollar payout has raised questions — and eyebrows.
“It's raised a lot more doubts among teachers as to, ‘Where are the district's priorities?'” said Chris Proulx of the 3,700-member teachers union. “The common response has been, ‘Is this why there's not enough money to lower class sizes or get me a paraprofessional in my classroom?'”
Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, said it's not that spreading $1 million among 85 schools would go far. But the big payment to the retiring superintendent is discouraging to teachers who see many needs in their classrooms.
“It's reasonable to say that teachers spend upward of $500 to $1,000 a year from their own pockets,” Proulx said. “Kids need supplies, and the school district doesn't always have the ability to provide everything.”
Aside from the huge amount of the Mackiel payout, what's puzzling is how the school board, the district's paid staff and its attorney all could be blindsided. The amount budgeted was $200,000, so the board made up the difference by taking $600,000 from a contingency fund and $200,000 from “purchased services.”
Proulx praised board members for at least making the budget adjustments public.
“To me, it shows there is an effort being made to become more transparent,” he said. “They can modify the budget as needed without giving every single detail. As a critic, I give them credit for saying it out loud in public when they knew they'd get a lot of flak over it.”
But if the board negotiated Mackiel's contracts over the years, Proulx asked, “Why wouldn't they know this was coming?”
Maybe it's because the board has been too deferential to Mackiel. A little background on that is instructive.
In 2000, after three years as superintendent, Mackiel was offered a higher salary in a Minneapolis suburb and announced he was leaving. In Omaha, that gave him leverage.
He used it not for a pay raise but for something he considered more important: A new contract that restricted the role of the school board.
The board had a history of bickering and impoliteness that reached its nadir in 1997 when it took 116 ballots — yes, 116 — for members to elect their own president. Vote after vote was 6-6.
If one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, that board should have held its meetings in a padded room.
Three years later, a job offer in his back pocket, Mackiel agreed to stay at OPS only if board members backed off and let him run the school district.
The late John Langan, respected board chairman at the time, said there would be “no nitpicking” from “the 12-member board.”
And so the board hasn't nitpicked — but might have ceded too much power to administrators. When board member Justin Wayne last year asked for something as simple as a district organizational chart, he was denied.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha cited that refusal in proposing a bill in the Legislature to reduce the number of board members to seven. It didn't reach a vote.
But with all that has happened at OPS, including the controversial hiring and un-hiring of a replacement for Mackiel, that bill could gain traction in the 2013 legislative session.
John Mackiel is a remarkable Omaha story. He grew up Catholic around 85th and Blondo Streets, attending St. Pius X Elementary and Rummel (now Roncalli Catholic) High School. He thought of becoming a monk but instead became a Methodist.
By his own account a former ‘C' student, he caught fire academically, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and became a teacher, counselor and administrator. On his way up the ladder, he earned six degrees, including a doctorate and a law degree.
He was named superintendent in 1997 and fought hard for OPS. He leaves the district he served for 40 years with a big pension and a lovely parting gift — a startlingly large check that says, “Thanks a million.”
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