Omaha’s future depends in considerable measure on the performance of Omaha Public Schools. It’s crucial to have capable leadership at the OPS helm. Omaha has benefited over the past five years from the leadership of Superintendent Mark Evans, who retires at the end of this month.
OPS is an enormous, complicated institution — it has more than 52,000 students, 82 school buildings, 7,400 full-time employees and an annual budget of nearly $600 million. The district handles the needs of students from a broad range of backgrounds. Omaha’s population growth has had some schools bursting at the seams.
The OPS superintendent has tremendous responsibilities in many regards: making a wide range of administrative decisions, short-term and long-term; overseeing large-scale initiatives such as bond-project construction; identifying and advocating for specific strategic priorities; working with the OPS board and carrying out its directives; visiting schools and getting feedback from principals and teachers; responding to emergency situations, including taking phone calls at all hours from parents or guardians; and making public comments on OPS issues and decisions, sometimes on controversial matters.
The job requires someone who can be a sound manager, diplomat and public speaker while handling a dizzying daily work schedule. Evan’s approach to those tasks, overall, was focused and impressive. He’s the first to acknowledge that credit for progress needs to be shared broadly, but on his watch, the district took impressive steps forward in key respects, including addressing some long-neglected responsibilities.
OPS, after a 15-year hiatus, developed two major bonds proposals, and the public approved them with strong votes of confidence — 60 percent approval in 2014, and 67 percent this spring. Under Evans’ direction, the projects from the 2014 bond vote are on budget and on time, with 80 percent completed. The district revamped its sex education policy for the first time in three decades. It developed and achieved buy-in for a comprehensive strategic plan.
Evans instituted a new structure for training and managing principals using experienced OPS principals as mentors. The district boosted teacher pay and competes for regional teaching talent by hiring earlier in the year.
Evans showed an impressive capability at relationship-building in the community. He talked about issues in plain English, rather than resorting to education jargon. He puts the emphasis on the positive but didn’t adopt a defensive attitude or brush aside legitimate disagreement or criticism.
Evans’ tenure wasn’t error-free. The district experienced woeful bus problems in the fall of 2016, for example, and teachers were understandably riled by how the district handled the decision to lengthen the school day.
Evans has briefed his successor as superintendent, Cheryl Logan, on these positives and negatives as part of their wide-ranging discussions this year. The well-designed transition process reflects well on both these professionals.
OPS and Omaha have been fortunate these past five years to have a leader with the dedication displayed by Mark Evans. He has helped OPS move forward as he carried out what is an extraordinarily demanding job.