The Omaha school board on Friday announced the names of the three finalists to replace interim Superintendent Virginia Moon: Carey Wright, Mark Evans and Stephen Murley.
The community will have a chance to interview the three finalists this week. Each public meet-and-greet will include a presentation from the candidate followed by questions from the audience.
The meet-and-greets will be held in the school board's meeting room at the Teacher Administrative Center, 3215 Cuming St. The board will interview each candidate earlier in the day of their public meet-and-greet.
Tuesday from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Stephen Murley
Wednesday from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Carey Wright
Thursday from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Mark Evans
The board hired Proact Search to conduct a national hunt to replace Moon. She replaced John Mackiel, who had been superintendent since 1997.
The board will announce a new leader at its Dec. 17 meeting. Read more about the finalists below.
Current position: Chief academic officer in District of Columbia Public Schools
Educational experience: Bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Maryland, College Park
About the District of Columbia Public Schools
Students receiving free or reduced-price meals: 52%
Graduation rate: 59%
Click here to read more about Wright.
She made tough decisions, kept focus on children
On her climb up the professional ranks, Carey Wright got a hand up from one of the most polarizing figures in American education.
The assist came from Michelle Rhee — education reformer or destroyer, depending on whom you ask — who in 2010 announced that Wright had the right stuff to serve as the chief academic officer for the District of Columbia Public Schools.
Wright is one of three finalists to become the next superintendent of the Omaha Public Schools.
Rhee was chancellor of the D.C. district, which has about 45,000 students, more than half low-income.
Rhee announced that after an extensive search, district officials concluded that Wright had all the qualities and characteristics they wanted.
“I was looking for a problem solver with a proven track record for success and that's what Dr. Wright provided,” Rhee said in a statement issued Friday. “I am confident that she will provide the same great leadership helping to drive student achievement for Omaha Public Schools as she has done for the DCPS.”
Rhee is known for rankling teachers unions with her aggressive reforms, including closing schools, firing principals and trying to end tenure. Supporters say such reforms are needed to improve the country's underperforming schools.
Rhee resigned under pressure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools in October 2010. She now runs StudentsFirst, an advocacy group that promotes school vouchers, charter schools and using test scores to evaluate teachers.
Wright, who still holds her position with the D.C. district, had previously been the deputy chief of the D.C. district's office of teaching and learning.
She came to the D.C. district from the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.
Patricia O'Neill, who has been on the school board of that district for 14 years, said she doesn't believe that Wright would necessarily try similar approaches to Rhee.
The two are “not cut from the same cloth,” she said.
She said Wright desired to one day be a superintendent, not just an associate or deputy.
O'Neill said she believes Wright made the move to D.C. to broaden her experiences. She said Wright is articulate, enthusiastic and would make a great superintendent.
She is “hard-charging, totally dedicated, whatever it takes in support of kids, always with a smile on her face, and capable of making tough decisions,” she said.
Wright came to Montgomery in 2003 from the neighboring Howard County Public Schools. In that district, she was a teacher, a principal for 17 years and director of special education and student services.
She began her career in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, as a teacher.
Wright spent six years in the Montgomery district. With nearly 149,000 students, it is the 17th-largest school district in the country. About one-third of the students are poor.
Wright served as the Montgomery district's associate superintendent for special education and student services until 2009. She was responsible for programs for 17,000 students with disabilities, managing a budget of $350 million and providing special education staffing for 200 schools. She also administered the International Student Admission Office.
The Montgomery district, during that time, faced many challenges in providing special education services, O'Neill said.
“Carey had to make decisions that were not always popular with some of our parents but were truly what was in the best interest of kids, I believe,” she said.
Wright did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
— Joe Dejka
Current position: Superintendent of Andover Public Schools
Educational experience: Bachelor's degree from University of Kansas; master's degree and superintendent certification from Wichita State University; fellowship at Broad Urban Superintendents Academy
Family: Married with two adult children
About the Andover Public Schools
Students receiving free or reduced-price meals: 15%
Graduation rate: 94.4%
Click here to read more about Evans.
He has helped boost achievement rates at two districts
When the Andover Public Schools superintendent retired more than eight years ago, Roger Elliott knew one of the people he wanted to see in the pool of candidates to replace him.
He was familiar with Mark Evans, then an administrator in the Wichita Public Schools, and had long thought the Andover district should try to hire him.
Elliott and other members of the school board eventually chose Evans from among five candidates.
In the eight years since, said Elliott, the board's president, the suburban district has “flourished.” Evans proved a fine visionary, whose strengths lie in engaging the community and who is highly regarded by his peers in Kansas. Now Evans is one of three finalists for the Omaha Public Schools' top job.
“We would be saddened to see him go,” said Elliott, a retired commercial banker, “but we also understand when opportunities arise, someone of his talent level would be in demand.”
Evans, 53, said his years in Andover “have been nothing but a positive experience.” In his time there he has helped pass a bond issue, made podcasts to communicate with the community, and worked to integrate technology, including testing a “flipped” classroom model where students get recorded lessons at home.
He said he's interested in the Omaha job because the urban district closely mirrors Wichita in terms of enrollment, demographics and other measures. He spent the previous 20 years with the Wichita district, 17 of them in administrative roles, including interim superintendent and deputy superintendent.
“I'm familiar with an urban setting and I'm familiar with making a difference in that setting,” he said.
He's also familiar with Omaha. Stacey, his wife of 30 years, was born and raised in Lincoln. She has family in the Lincoln and Omaha areas.
Evans said his top priority is student success. Achievement rates have gone up in both places where he's worked. “That's probably what I'm most proud of,” he said.
Fifteen percent of the Andover district's students receive free or reduced price meals, compared with 71.5 percent in Omaha and 75 percent in Wichita.
Elliott said Andover prides itself on being one of the highest-achieving districts in the state in terms of state test scores, graduation rates and ACT scores.
But Evans said he understands that takes working with the community. His approach isn't to come in with an answer but to ask questions, analyze data and meet with the school board, staff and community, and then come up with a plan using research-based approaches.
He said he's done enough research to see the Omaha district is using a lot of good educational tools.
“One of the biggest challenges in a district like Wichita or Omaha is bringing it all together,” he said.
John Allison, the Wichita district's current superintendent, said he and Evans share a focus on instruction.
He has gotten to know Evans through monthly meetings of Wichita area superintendents. “He's going to be progressive and always looking to turn over any stone he can if it will help provide support for students.”
Evans' work with the community also has played out beyond school walls. He helped pass a nearly $40 million bond issue in Andover in 2005 and a more than $200 million measure in Wichita in 2000.
The Andover district also passed, albeit by a narrow margin, a local option budget increase that allows the district to raise more local funding. “We were able to pass that even in this difficult climate,” he said.
Evans said he also has a passion for making the district's operations transparent. He occasionally posts podcasts and operates a Twitter account. He was named one of the “Top Ten Tech Savvy Superintendents” by eSchools News earlier this year.
The district also is testing a flipped classroom model, primarily in secondary math. Students watch recorded lessons at home, then go to school, where the teacher facilitates activities in the classroom.
Allison, the Wichita superintendent, said he believes Evans would understand the challenges of an urban district. But he would miss their conversations.
“Selfishly, I hope he doesn't go,” Allison said. “But it would be a great opportunity for him and he would bring something special to Omaha.”
— Julie Anderson
Current position: Superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District
Educational experience: Bachelor's degree from University of Michigan; master's degree and pursuing doctorate from University of Wisconsin
Family: Married with three children
About the Iowa City Community School District
Students receiving free or reduced-price meals: 34%
Graduation rate: 88.1%
Click here to read more about Murley.
He pared back on busing, spent more on tutoring
Stephen Murley says his strength as a school superintendent is his ability to establish a clear direction and build an effective team of administrators, principals and teachers.
“One of the things we've done very well in the district is we've put the right people in place to do the work that needs to be done,” said Murley, who has headed the Iowa City Community School District since July 2010 and is one of the three finalists to lead the Omaha Public Schools. “It really is a team effort.”
Murley, 46, said he is well-prepared to address the urban education challenges of OPS — such as achievement gaps and below-average graduation rates — even though his career has been spent in much smaller and less impoverished districts than Omaha.
Iowa City, for example, has less than one-third of Omaha's enrollment. His previous district in Wausau, Wis., was even smaller.
Meanwhile, 34 percent of Iowa City's students this year are eligible for the federal subsidized lunch program. Omaha has 71.5 percent low-income students.
Despite those differences, Murley said Iowa City still must deal with achievement matters related to high poverty, and he noted that the percentage of low-income students in some of his schools tops 80 percent. He said his district has worked hard to identify needs, set goals and strategies for improvement and get students back on track.
“He's a pretty forward-thinking person,” said Karla Cook, an Iowa City school board member and former district teacher. “I think he's been very good at getting processes done, getting things lined up to go.”
To address the problems of dropouts and low graduation rates, Murley said, his district targets students who are falling behind and tries to help them catch up in their regular classrooms. If that doesn't work, he said, the district's alternative education programs kick in.
For Iowa City's Class of 2011, 88 percent of students wound up graduating four years later.
Murley said he would bring the same focused approach to the Omaha district, which he said already uses many appropriate strategies — small class sizes and magnet programs — to improve its academic outcomes.
In addition, he said, OPS will benefit from the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties as the district itself improves and is able to attract more students from neighboring districts.
Improving Omaha's schools, in turn, will contribute to the city's future growth.
In Iowa City, Murley has dealt with extensive changes in school attendance areas to balance enrollment numbers in the growing district. He said Iowa City is gradually paring back its busing in order to spend more money on tutoring services and less on transportation.
School board member Jeffrey McGinness said he wants to ensure that Murley's Omaha candidacy and potential departure don't harm the district's “many positive initiatives we have going on right now — many of which were a direct result of Steve's leadership.”
Last week the Iowa City school board voted to extend Murley's contract until July 2015 and boost his base salary to $192,000.
Former OPS Superintendent John Mackiel, who retired in August, made $413,607 during the 2010-11 school year, and $379,727 last school year.
Murley's negotiations also included clarification of rules for counting his required work days and allowing him to claim reimbursement for unused vacation days.
Murley said he spends so much time on district business outside normal work hours, such as weekends, that he is able to fulfill his 260-day contract requirement and take other time off without using his vacation days. Last year, for example, he used no vacation days at all — leading to a large lump-sum payment for the unused vacation time.
An Ohio native, Murley graduated from high school in Wisconsin. He majored in economics, history and communications at the University of Michigan and initially didn't plan a career in education. He worked in banking and county government before deciding to go back to school and earn a teaching certification.
Murley said it is rewarding to see students learn and grow, and it has become his life's mission.
“Education is a calling,” he said. “There's little that I can do that would be more important than growing the future.”
— Paul Goodsell
Sources: Omaha Public Schools; Andover Public Schools; Kansas State Department of Education; District of Columbia Public Schools; Iowa City Community School District
Contact the writers: 402-444-1077, email@example.com; 402-444-1223, firstname.lastname@example.org; 402-444-1114, email@example.com