They spoke for the same purpose, the same desire for something different in the Omaha Public Schools.
They used phrases such as “change agent” and “fresh eyes” for the past 17 months.
The community leaders and business executives who sought an outside leader for OPS received welcome news Friday when the board announced its superintendent finalists: For the first time since 1982, an outsider will lead the district as its permanent superintendent.
The three finalists: Stephen Murley, superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District; Carey Wright, chief academic officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools; and Mark Evans, superintendent of Andover Public Schools in suburban Wichita, Kan. None of them has any ties to OPS.
Two have high-level experience working in urban districts similar to Omaha, districts where a majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The third has spent his time in smaller districts.
Board President Freddie Gray said the board won't favor any type of experience over another, such as superintendent tenure against the size of the district the person leads.
“It's the whole package, the whole person that we're interested in,” she said.
Community members told the district's search consultant a year ago what they wanted in a new leader.
Several people “felt that a bold change agent was needed, but this did not seem to be the universal sentiment,” the consultant's report stated.
They also wanted someone who is approachable and collaborative, a strong communicator and good listener, and a leader who has previously worked in a diverse school district, either as a superintendent or in a high-level administrative position.
Last spring the board hired former Des Moines Superintendent Nancy Sebring, who later resigned. ReNae Kehrberg, OPS assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, was one of three finalists.
In an interview, Kehrberg said she did not apply for the position this time and knew of no OPS employees who had applied.
The last permanent OPS superintendent who came from outside the district was Jack Taylor in 1982. The current leader, Virginia Moon, came to OPS via Broken Bow and Ralston, but she is serving on an interim basis.
It's time for OPS to hire from outside if it wants to change the district, said Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, the OPS teachers union.
“It's a lot easier to make change happen from an outside person than from somebody within,” he said.
Proulx said these finalists seem stronger than the three the OPS board introduced in March.
Ken Bird, president of the Avenue Scholars Foundation, said the board likely would have gotten a bigger pool of candidates if it had waited until March or April to make a selection.
Some potential applicants might prefer a schedule that doesn't reveal their interest halfway through a school year. “People don't want to be a lame duck the rest of the year,” said Bird, former superintendent of the Westside Community Schools.
It also won't be ideal for the new OPS superintendent to be picked by a 12-member board that loses four members three weeks after hiring the leader, he said.
Bird said that if he were a would-be superintendent, “I would want to be hired by those folks I would be working for.”
In August, Gary Solomon of Proact Search presented two options to the board: Hire a new leader by Dec. 17, or by Jan. 18, 2013.
Members said they wanted the board with experience to make the hire and that they felt the public wanted them to move quickly.
The OPS board is trying to find a successor to former Superintendent John Mackiel, who retired in August after 15 years in the top spot.
In April the board hired Sebring. But she later resigned after sexually explicit emails sent to and from her work account became public.
The position drew 68 applicants this time around.
Each board member privately told Gary Solomon of Proact Search his or her top three candidates. From those conversations, Solomon recommended three finalists to the board:
» Stephen Murley
Murley has been the superintendent of the Iowa City district since July 2010. He worked in three smaller Wisconsin districts before that. He believes strongly in hiring the right people for the right positions to meet a district's goals. In Iowa City, also the home of the University of Iowa, Murley has tried to identify students who are falling behind and help them catch up before graduation time.
About 88 percent of Iowa City freshmen in 2007 graduated four years later.
» Carey Wright
Wright has worked as the chief academic officer in the Washington, D.C., Public Schools since July 2010. She was promoted by former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, one of the nation's most outspoken leaders of education reform. Before D.C., Wright was an associate superintendent for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. There, she oversaw the office of special education and student services, which entailed special education programs for 17,000 students and budget of $350 million.
» Mark Evans
Evans, 53, is in his eighth year as superintendent in Andover, a suburban district about 15 miles east of Wichita. Before being tapped to head the state's second-fastest-growing district, he spent 20 years with the Wichita Public Schools, 17 of them in administrative roles that included interim superintendent and deputy superintendent.
The Wichita district closely mirrors OPS in enrollment, poverty and graduation rates.
Evans is also familiar with Omaha. His wife, Stacey, was born and raised in Lincoln and has family in the Lincoln and Omaha areas. Evans said he has helped raise student achievement wherever he's worked. He also works with communities, he said. He helped pass a nearly $40 million bond issue in Andover in 2005 and a $200 million-plus measure in Wichita in 2000.
World-Herald staff writers Julie Anderson, Joe Dejka and Paul Goodsell contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1074, email@example.com, twitter.com/jonathonbraden
Question the OPS finalists
The community will have a chance to interview the three finalists.
The public meet-and-greets will include a presentation from the candidate followed by questions from the audience. Each meet-and-greet runs from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the school board's meeting room at the Teacher Administrative Center, 3215 Cuming St. The schedule:
» Tuesday: Stephen Murley is the superintendent of the Iowa City Community Schools. Murley has been in the position since July 2010. Before leading the district of 12,450 students, Murley worked in a few Wisconsin school districts. He has been a teacher, coach, athletic department administrator, building administrator and human resources director.
» Wednesday: Carey Wright is the chief academic officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools. Wright has been in that position since June 2010. Prior to that, she worked as the deputy chief in the D.C. district's office of teaching and learning. From 2003 to 2009, she was associate superintendent for special education and student services for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She spent most of her career in the Howard County Public Schools in Maryland.
» Thursday: Mark Evans is in his eighth year as superintendent of Andover (Kan.) Public Schools near Wichita. Andover's enrollment is about 5,380 students. Evans previously spent 17 years as an administrator in the Wichita Public Schools, including stints as an interim superintendent, associate superintendent and deputy superintendent.
World-Herald staff writer Julie Anderson contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1074, firstname.lastname@example.org,twitter.com/jonathonbraden