The Omaha Public Schools need a leader who can get the best out of his or her staff and unite the segregated community, say two people who have led OPS.
What's needed, they say, is someone who can bring the various groups together, nudge them forward, and lead them to the overarching goal, whether those groups be bureaucratic departments or diverse communities.
As the Omaha school board tries to find a new superintendent, Interim Superintendent Virginia Moon and former Superintendent Norbert Schuerman described similar characteristics that they think the next leader of OPS should possess.
In separate interviews, the two strayed from mentioning specific areas that candidates should have mastered, such as teaching or human resources. Instead, the two focused on leadership qualities, traits that might be found in leaders of the private sector or a major urban school district.
Some of their ideas matched what community members said earlier this year.
“The most important characteristic,” Moon said, “is that sense of 'This is where we have to go, and I'm going to get us there.' ”
The OPS board is still searching for a permanent successor to former Superintendent John Mackiel, who retired in August after leading OPS for 15 years. Mackiel did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
In April, the board hired former Des Moines Superintendent Nancy Sebring. But she later resigned after sexually explicit emails sent to and from her work account became public.
OPS, like most urban districts, has a glaring achievement gap between its low-income students and their more advantaged peers. OPS's graduation rate of about 75 percent is above most urban districts. The district also is growing and adding more students who qualify for federal lunch subsidies, a leading indicator of poverty.
Moon and Schuerman shared a few traits of an ideal OPS chief:
Belief in educating all students
Moon, who has been the interim leader since August, called it a “strong sense of mission.”
The belief that all students deserve the same education, regardless of income level or race, “needs to govern all that you do,” said Schuerman, who retired in 1997 after 13 years as superintendent.
If the belief isn't there, he said, it shows through nicer facilities on one end of town compared with another, or a smaller student-to-staff ratio in some parts of the city.
Ability to bring groups together
OPS has talented administrators and teachers, people who know the research and know how to raise the grades and test scores of children from low-income families, Moon said.
The harder part, she said, is getting all OPS departments to move toward the same goals.
For example, the district plans to make room to educate more 3- and 4-year-olds. Achieving that goal requires coordinating with multiple OPS departments, she said, including buildings and grounds, student services and federal early-childhood programs.
“To implement a systemic change that will make a difference for kids,” she said, “everybody has to know about it.” OPS officials recently delayed a project to turn two north Omaha elementary schools into one campus. Officials had been talking about the idea for two years but pushed it back because public meetings with parents and community members identified worries not previously considered, Moon said at the time.
Collaboration needs to happen in the community, too. The superintendent should understand that south Omaha parents might view an issue in a way that's different from how parents in north Omaha view it, Schuerman said.
“This person should have a thorough understanding of the political implications of leading a racially diverse and urban school district,” he said.
If a school executive can't be trusted, Moon said, colleagues will work against one another and projects will fail.
“The more open and honest you are with your staff and your parents and your community,” Schuerman said, “the more they will then develop a trust in you.”
Board members and community members also listed other traits for a superintendent: a strong communicator and a good listener who sets high expectations; and someone who has previously worked in a diverse school district, either as a superintendent or in a high-level administrative position.
The next OPS superintendent likely will come from another school district, not a Fortune 500 company or inside OPS. The Nebraska Department of Education can't grant a waiver for individuals who don't meet the professional requirements, including education experience.
And board members have said and shown that they want someone not working at OPS. In April, the board bypassed OPS Assistant Superintendent ReNae Kehrberg, who was one of three finalists. Besides Sebring, the last OPS superintendent hired from outside the district was Jack Taylor in 1982.
Board President Freddie Gray, speaking to a school board committee in September, said the board was seeking someone working outside OPS.
“What we heard loud and clear was to use the moment as an opportunity for change. The board responded, seeking an external candidate,” Gray said. “We know we need someone to see this district with fresh eyes.”
OPS by the numbers
Based on fall 2011 data
*Low income refers to students from families that qualify for federal school lunch subsidies.
OPS students scoring proficient or better on state accountability tests in spring 2012
OPS freshmen in fall 2008 who graduated four years later
6,761 OPS students learning English last fall
14 Average tenure in years of the past two OPS superintendents
3.64 Average tenure in years of superintendents in 56 urban school districts, according to a 2010 study by the Council of the Great City Schools
Sources: Omaha Public Schools and Nebraska Department of Eduction
Nov. 19: Gary Solomon of Proact Search gave the board the best applications. A total of 68 people applied, Solomon said.
Eighty-nine people submitted applications, but 21 withdrew before the deadline, for various reasons. Solomon and Proact staff whittled the list to 30 for the school board. Solomon and the board met and whittled that list to six semifinalists.
Last week: The board interviewed the six in closed session. All 12 board members except Sandra Jensen went to the closed interviews.
Friday: Finalists will be announced.
Dec. 11-13: The board and community will interview finalists.
Dec. 17: The new OPS superintendent will be announced.
Looking for a leader
Since Aug. 15, 2011, the day that then-OPS Superintendent John Mackiel announced the 2011-12 school year would be his last, city officials, state legislators and community leaders have shared what they want to see in the district's next leader. Here's a look at what a few of them have said:
David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce
“There's an opportunity here with the new superintendent to kind of take a fresh look at everything. Whoever they bring in has got to be a change agent.”
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman
The district's next superintendent will need “a laserlike focus on improving student achievement and eliminating the African-American achievement gap. The next Omaha Public Schools superintendent will have a profound impact on Omaha's future workforce.”
John Cavanaugh, executive director of Building Bright Futures, an Omaha educational philanthropy
“The real opportunity here is to find someone with great leadership skills.”
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha
“There is not a job in the city of Omaha that has greater importance for the future of Omaha.”
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