The Omaha school district is down to two candidates to take over as principal of Omaha South High — and now the district wants to hear from you.
An interview committee narrowed its list for the top job at South to two internal candidates on Tuesday. The Omaha Public Schools would not release the names of the finalists, but parents, staff, students and community members will get a chance to meet and question them at a community forum on Feb. 13.
“With bigger jobs like this, clearly we've got a community that wants to have some input and some involvement,” Superintendent Mark Evans said.
Parents showed up en masse to an October meeting at South to demand more face time with Evans, increased security at the school and an opportunity to weigh in on the selection process for the new principal.
Waving signs, many asked specifically for a bilingual or Spanish-speaking principal to represent the school's large Latino population. In 2012, almost seven out of 10 South students were Hispanic.
At the 5:30 p.m. forum in the South auditorium, the two candidates will share their backgrounds and qualifications, answer pre-screened questions from the community and receive feedback at the end from the audience. Questions must be submitted to OPS's communications office before Feb. 13.
Principal Cara Riggs is leaving at the end of the school year to move to California. Her replacement will lead one of the district's fastest-growing schools, with an enrollment of more than 2,200 students, popular dual language and arts magnet programs, and rising four-year graduation rates. Still, challenges remain, with the school's scores on state math and reading tests ranking below OPS and statewide averages.
Evans said taking on the task of raising achievement levels at South may have scared off some potential applicants.
The interview committee, made up of Evans, several OPS administrators, a community member and South Omaha school board member Tony Vargas, had a shallow pool of applicants, despite heavy advertising and two rounds of searches, Evans said. He declined to say how many people applied.
“We were very disappointed that we didn't have more candidates,” he said. “We did have quality candidates, but we didn't have as many as we wanted.”
Evans said the district needs to work harder to develop a pipeline of future principals and administrators.
“A lot of people are becoming more reluctant to take on leadership roles in schools,” he said. “It's challenging work, and some folks just don't want to do it. This is a school with 2,000 young people, a school that's ripe for continued improvement. There's a lot of positives, and to have a minimal amount of candidates was disappointing.”
Still, Evans said he felt good about the two finalists.
The district is trying to make its hiring processes more inclusive by adding school board and community representatives to interview teams. Giving the community a chance to weigh in on the principal's hire should make the transition easier for Riggs' successor, too, Evans said.
Parents protested in the spring when the district announced plans to reassign three popular north Omaha principals.
“I like to get input and get involvement and be inclusive,” he said. “I think it pays off, and the result is you end up with more buy-in for whoever is selected.”