After receiving 33 applications from 19 different states, in February, Omaha Public Schools (OPS) announced three finalists for their soon-to-be vacant superintendent post. But, on the heels of one finalist withdrawing her name from consideration, the two remaining finalists also withdrew.
Paul Gausman, of Iowa, and Khalid Mumin, of Pennsylvania, issued a joint statement, less than 48 hours before the board was scheduled to make a decision.
The announcement surprised stakeholders in the district which serves more than 52,000 students. Even more surprising were Mumin’s comments on the failed search. Calling the process dysfunctional, Mumin said OPS leaders exhibit a disregard for “the best interests of kids.”
That sentiment surfaced again at the next OPS board meeting. Parents and educators expressed growing frustration with the district and some accused board members of letting personal agendas drive decision making at the expense of students.
The latest turmoil in OPS comes during a school year that got off to a rocky start. For more than a month, the district faced transportation woes, affecting thousands of families and stranding countless students. In one instance, a 5 year old was lost for hours after a district-contracted driver locked the boy in a parked van.
And a lack of cohesion and cooperation was evident in January, when the board failed to reach consensus in leadership elections after more than 120 rounds of voting.
Trouble in the District
Trouble in the district comes amidst growing dialogue around school choice in Nebraska. Days before Gausman and Mumin’s announcement, the Legislature’s Education Committee held a hearing on a charter school bill, which would make Nebraska the 45th state in the country to pass charter-enabling legislation. The bill would allow public schools to open within OPS boundaries but operate outside of OPS’ control.
The charter school “threat” arose during public interviews for each of the superintendent finalists. Notably, Mumin refused to condemn charters, a decision some believe eradicated his chances of garnering full board support.
The district’s documented opposition to charter schools is a sign and symptom of its dysfunctionality. While many urban school districts have forged collaborative relationships with public charter schools for the benefit of all kids, OPS leaders cling to anti-charter ideology rather than the research about what’s working well for kids.
As one example, earlier this year, OPS pursued a contract with an outside provider to replace an alternative middle school that closed in 2011 due to budget cuts. The provider had “a proven track record for efficiently and effectively managing a middle school alternative program,” according to the district’s spokeswoman.
But the Omaha Education Association opposed the plan, calling it a “foot in the door” for charters. That families were seeking a needed option or that students would benefit from that option was secondary, if anything, and the district scrapped the plan.
Seemingly unmoved by this tale, just days before OPS found itself without any superintendent finalists, an OPS board member testified against the charter school bill, calling it “a solution in search for a problem.” Those before her noted that Nebraska has among the worst outcomes in the country for Black children, that Black children are disproportionately trapped in failing district schools, and that learning gains for children attending urban charter schools are well documented and substantial.
So, while Omaha must continue the search for a new superintendent, if kids aren’t clearly the district’s priority, we don’t need to search for a problem.