A new Omaha Public Schools board will take over June 10. It needs a new president.
The message that was sent by thousands of Omahans on Election Day was crystal clear.
They voted for change.
A new president would be best positioned to carry out that unmistakable message. Consider, after all, the magnitude of what voters said. They rejected the stumbling, secretive, over-lawyered board of old. They voted for six new board members, along with a seventh who has served for just 4½ months.
That new, nine-member board needs a president able to build consensus for the hard work ahead. A president not satisfied with the status quo. A president unburdened by the missteps of the past. A president who will stand as a change agent and be seen as such by the public.
The new president and board members need a laser-like focus on student achievement. Test scores must be raised. The gap between the performance of poor and minority students and their middle- and upper-income peers must be closed.
The new president must lead a new board that will hold high expectations for students and set the district’s goals accordingly.
The new president and new board must manage fiscal policy so that OPS resources are aligned with those goals.
The new president must work in concert with the new superintendent but never lose sight of who the boss is.
The new president and new board should support the new superintendent when appropriate and challenge him when called for. They should hold the superintendent accountable if student achievement goals aren’t being met.
The new president needs to be open with Omahans — explaining the board’s vision for OPS and its strategy for getting there.
The new president needs to be accountable to Omahans for a return on the nearly half-billion in tax dollars invested in the school district each year.
The new president needs to be willing to rock the boat, to chart a new course.
The new president should learn from the mistakes of the past. Remember:
>> In 2011, nine of 12 board members voted to keep OPS policy on reporting possible sexual harassment.
That policy gave OPS officials leeway to determine if they thought reasonable cause existed for calling police. They twice failed to notify law enforcement after allegations were made by students against a former middle school teacher, who recently was convicted of child abuse and sexual assault by communication device.
Because of that 2011 vote, the terribly flawed old policy wouldn’t change for nearly another year.
>> Eight board members voted to retain Freddie Gray as president even though Gray and the board’s lawyer kept secret the fact that newly hired superintendent Nancy Sebring had sent sexually explicit emails on a Des Moines school computer. Following public disclosure, the board accepted Sebring’s resignation.
>> The old board was surprised to learn that, under a package the board had approved, it owed retiring superintendent John Mackiel a $1 million retirement payout in addition to his $200,000 annual pension.
>> The old board paid its law firm $13 million over five years, far more than the legal costs of many urban school districts.
>> The old board in January even bobbled the swearing in of several newly elected members, potentially jeopardizing their ability to serve.
The problems were so bad that the Legislature abolished that board and created the new, smaller-sized body that takes over next month.
Lawmakers made a powerful statement about the need for change. Omaha voters echoed that sentiment on Tuesday.
They elected a new board, one that includes pragmatic new leaders who recognize the problems of the past, understand the challenges of the future and are focused on giving OPS a fresh start.
Starting at the top.