Community reactions ranged from measured to harsh to mystified Wednesday to the revelation that two officials of the Omaha Public Schools knew more than they let on about the racy emails that forced the resignation of Nancy Sebring.
OPS board member Marian Fey called for board members to review their policies about when and how the board and its attorney share information with each other.
Fey plans to ask that the issue be placed on an agenda for a full school board discussion in the near future.
Board member Nancy Kratky said she couldn't second-guess the actions of the board president and the district's attorney.
Meanwhile, the state senator who sponsored a bill earlier this year that would have reduced the size of the 12-member OPS board said the situation underscores the need to change how the district is governed.
And Ernie Chambers, a member of the Learning Community Council, said that Freddie Gray, the school board president, should resign and that the state should investigate whether board attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda violated professional ethics.
The comments came in response to a World-Herald story showing that Gray and Eynon-Kokrda withheld information from other board members about Sebring sending personal emails to a lover on a Des Moines Public Schools computer.
Sebring, who resigned abruptly as superintendent in Des Moines over the emails, indicated soon afterward to Eynon-Kokrda that she wanted the Omaha board to know about it.
Gray and Eynon-Kokrda learned about the Des Moines emails weeks before newspapers reported on them — but after the Omaha school board had selected Sebring to replace retiring OPS Superintendent John Mackiel.
The two officials planned with Sebring how they would respond if the emails became public, all the while thinking Sebring would still become OPS superintendent.
The information came to light after Sebring provided The World-Herald last week with more than a dozen messages, exchanged between her and Eynon-Kokrda prior to the story breaking, that were preserved on Sebring's phone.
The emails she provided contradict comments by Gray after news stories broke about Sebring's racy emails. Gray told reporters that she had heard only “rumors” and “innuendo” about the emails and flatly denied that Sebring had ever told her or Eynon-Kokrda about them.
Gray and Eynon-Kokrda say Sebring withheld details from them and minimized the seriousness of what she had done in Des Moines.
Sebring entered into a contract April 24 to become the OPS superintendent, effective July 1. She abruptly resigned from the Des Moines job May 9, seven weeks before her contract with that district was to expire. At the time, Sebring said the early departure would give her time to tend to personal matters, such as her move to Omaha and her daughter's wedding.
Gray and Eynon-Kokrda said they didn't know how graphic and sexually explicit the emails were until The World-Herald and the Des Moines Register, which had discovered them through public records requests, broke stories on them June 1.
Sebring resigned from the OPS position June 2, after the emails became public.
Gray was unavailable for further comment Wednesday. She left to attend an education conference in New York.
Fey said she doesn't think Gray or Eynon-Kokrda were trying to mislead other board members by not sharing their knowledge of the emails.
“They wanted to trust her (Sebring) and give her the benefit of the doubt. And when I read the emails, there was an intention from Dr. Sebring to take advantage of that trust and manipulate it to serve her purposes,” Fey said.
“Perhaps, if anything, Mrs. Eynon-Kokrda and Mrs. Gray are guilty of being naive, not suspicious enough,” Fey said.
Together the board should decide what, if anything, needs to change about how and what members communicate with each other and with Eynon-Kokrda, Fey said.
“Let's all take a serious look at the policies and the practices that got us into this situation and let the board decide how they get information, when they get information,” she said.
Board member Nancy Kratky said Gray and Eynon-Kokrda did what they felt comfortable doing.
“If that's the way it was, that's the way it was, and there's not a whole lot you can do about it now,” Kratky said.
Board member Justin Wayne said: “I'm still trying to gather all the facts. And, clearly, I did not know about this.”
Earlier this year, State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha sponsored a bill to trim the OPS board from 12 members to seven, contending that the board wasn't functioning well and had ceded too much control to the superintendent. Lautenbaugh said that with a smaller board, each board member would be more accountable to the public.
The latest news, Lautenbaugh said, “underlines the need for there to be some sweeping change.”
News that two OPS officials knew about the emails before reports were published was “mystifying” to John Cavanaugh, executive director of Building Bright Futures, an Omaha education philanthropy.
“I don't know what to make of it,” he said. “The board is going to need to address it in some fashion.”
Chambers, a longtime critic of OPS and a candidate for the Nebraska Legislature, called upon Gray to resign from the school board.
“It's clear to me she was disingenuous in the way she behaved, and she withheld critical, essential information from the board which she, not only as an elected official but as president of the board, had an obligation to share with those board members as soon as it came to their attention.”
Chambers said he intends to file a grievance against Eynon-Kokrda with the Nebraska Supreme Court's Counsel for Discipline, the state office that investigates and prosecutes suspected ethical violations by lawyers.
When Sebring emailed that she would rather resign the Omaha job and “bow out gracefully” before starting the job than get involved in a scandal after starting work, Chambers said Eynon-Kokrda was obliged to tell the board.
“Freddie and the lawyer should not have been talking to this woman about not resigning, if it's that serious in the mind of this woman, without immediately notifying the board members of what was going on,” Chambers said.
As soon as that kind of information came to Gray and Eynon-Kokrda, they had an obligation to let the other board members know “because there are no secrets between the lawyer and her client, which is the board,” Chambers said.
He said Sebring's abrupt resignation from the Des Moines job should have prompted further investigation.
“That is so highly unusual for a person with the type of job she had as superintendent to just — bam — quit that it threw up red flags and set off alarm bells,” Chambers said. “They had an obligation to inquire into it.”
State Sen. Brenda Council said it's hard to say whether Gray should have told her fellow board members that Sebring disclosed she had had an affair.
“Perhaps it would have been appropriate,” Council said.
But on a personnel matter, she said, she could go either way.
Council, who led opposition in the Legislature to Lautenbaugh's bill, said she is still against changing the size of the OPS board.
“What does this have to do with the size of the board?” she asked.
Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, said Wednesday that there's a public perception that OPS leaders make too many decisions in small groups and in closed-session meetings.
“Hopefully, they'll start doing more of these conversations more in the open, more frequently and more openly, just to start beating back that criticism, whether it's founded or unfounded,” Proulx said.
“If they would learn from this that they should talk more openly, then I think a lot of good could come from this.”
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