The night before all hell broke loose for the Omaha Public Schools, I sat across a banquet table from Freddie Gray, president of the school board.
We chatted briefly about the board's hiring of a new superintendent, and she said she believed OPS had selected a good one in Nancy Sebring of Des Moines.
The Inclusive Communities banquet last Thursday was a relaxed event. I teased her husband, Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, that when public officials were introduced that night to the nearly 700 people, she got a bigger hand than he did. (All received polite applause.)
We laughed. But by the next day, the school board president had little to smile about.
That's when Sebring's racy messages to her married lover — on the Des Moines school district's email system — were made public. That led to her resignation from OPS the next day, well before her scheduled July 1 starting date.
This week Freddie Gray has been inundated with calls from news media, including many from across the nation. On Tuesday, she said, she took a day away from the phones.
“I've got everybody calling,” she said Wednesday. “Quite frankly, I'm done with the ‘sex story.' I know that everybody is going to ask me about the sensationalism. This is not about that.”
Gray has maintained since Saturday, when the board voted to accept the resignation, that the decision to do so wasn't because of the sexual nature of the emails — but because Sebring had violated Des Moines district policy in using its system for personal messages.
“For the board, this is about policy violation,” Gray said. “It's not about the content. These are things we tell our staff all the time not to do. It's a big violation to use company equipment and emails.”
The World-Herald and the Des Moines Register, which obtained the emails in public records requests, posted some of them on their websites, with parts blacked out.
Though thousands have read them, Gray said she has not — but that she has read the long string of reader comments on Omaha.com about the emails and the school district.
She is offended by many who took it as an opportunity to anonymously “bash our staff” and post “nasty comments” about OPS teachers and principals. Said Gray: “Shame on those folks.”
People with concerns about OPS, she said, are free to make them known at board meetings or in emails, letters and visits to headquarters.
OPS, like most urban districts, has been fighting academic “achievement gaps.” The district has more than 50,000 students, about two-thirds of them members of minorities. More than two-thirds of students qualify for federal lunch subsidies, an indicator of poverty.
For the past six years, Sebring led the Des Moines district, with more than 31,000 students — about half minorities and two-thirds qualifying for lunch subsidies.
Because, among other things, she had attacked academic achievement gaps, she seemed a good fit for urban Omaha. The board voted 11-0 to hire her, with one abstention.
Most of the attention in recent days, though, has been on the emails to a married lover by a 57-year-old professonal woman who is also married, although Sebring and her husband issued a statement Wednesday saying they have lived “separate and independent lives” for seven years.
When it comes to the school board's reason for accepting Sebring's resignation, there are no shades of gray — at least not for Freddie Gray. It's about improper use of work emails, not about “the sex story.”
Freddie and Ben Gray are happily married after 21 years. Between them, they have seven children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
At Monday night's school board meeting, with reporters' cameras and microphones recording her every word, Freddie Gray was surprised to look out and see her husband sitting in the front row.
She has shown the same type of silent support for him: Although she doesn't regularly attend his City Council meetings, she did so during hearings and votes on his controversial anti-discimination ordinance, which passed in March.
Their support of each other during controversies and at other times, she said, has a calming effect.
She grew up as Freddie Stearns in the South Omaha housing projects at 29th and R Streets. Her father, Fred Stearns, was overseas in the Air Force when she was born and was pleased when his wife, Callie Jean, named the baby after him. She has six sisters and no brothers.
He later worked on packinghouse kill floors, and would come home with blood and hair on his white uniform.
Freddie, a 1970 graduate of Omaha Central High, says she can tell how long some people have known her if they call her by the name she used in her youth, Freddie Jean.
Freddie Gray is operations director for a video production company she owns with her husband, a former television journalist. She has served on a long list of civic boards, including the two-county, 11-district Learning Community Council.
The Omaha school board, she said, is focused on moving forward and finding the right person to lead the district.
“I love this city, this community,” she said. “Sometimes when I say ‘community,' people think I'm talking about one portion of it. I love this entire city.”
Contact the writer: