• Click here to read about how the meeting grew so heated.
Sharp exchanges on the Omaha school board Monday and a tense standoff in the audience shattered the calm normally associated with the group's meetings.
The board's reputation for sedate meetings and unanimous votes, which has led critics to accuse it of rubber-stamping, unraveled as members chose sides on whether president Freddie Gray could effectively lead the board after her handling of the Nancy Sebring situation.
Gray and the district's lawyer withheld information that Sebring, just selected as OPS superintendent, had resigned from her former job because she sent personal emails to a married lover on a school computer.
“I have had more calls on this than anything in all those years I've been on the board,” said Nancy Kratky, who was elected to the board in 1994.
She called the situation “extremely painful.”
Gray defended her actions and said she wouldn't resign as president. However, at the request of board member Kersten Borer, Gray agreed to schedule a vote on the position at the next Monday's regular board meeting.
Board officers are elected by majority vote and serve for a year. Gray took over the post in January.
No board member proposed sanctions against Gray, such as a reprimand, which is allowed under board policy.
Six members expressed support for Gray's handling of the Sebring matter. Two members said Gray's actions compromised her ability to lead. The remainder expressed some concerns but did not take a stand against Gray remaining as president.
Borer made the motion for the vote on Gray's position, saying it was in the district's best interest.
She called Gray a devoted and passionate advocate for the district.
“I do believe, though, that with the recent events it will be extremely challenging to go forward under the present leadership, given the fact that there's some, let's say, uncertainty and possible mistrust as far as that role,” Borer said.
Borer said there's also room to improve communication between board members and the public.
Board member Marian Fey said she is pleased with Gray's leadership.
Fey credited Gray for initiating a comprehensive review of board policies, holding workshops with the Council of Great City Schools and the Nebraska Association of School Boards, reaching out to community leaders and making meetings more transparent.
“These are not small things, and I feel this momentum needs to continue under the current leadership of Mrs. Gray,” Fey said. “I do not believe that it was the intention of Mrs. Gray to mislead the board.”
Fey called for an ad hoc committee to look at best practices of board leadership and create clear policy and direction for officers of the board.
The World-Herald reported last week that Gray and board counsel Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda withheld information from other board members about why Sebring abruptly left her post as superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools. Sebring told Gray and Eynon-Kokrda that it was over her personal email correspondence with a lover, sent to and from a Des Moines Public Schools email account.
Sebring was selected in April to replace retiring OPS Superintendent John Mackiel. She resigned May 9 as superintendent in Des Moines, seven weeks before her contract was to expire.
The World-Herald learned that she notified Eynon-Kokrda about the emails on May 10. Over the next three weeks, Sebring regularly updated Eynon-Kokrda and Gray — by email, by phone and in meetings — of her efforts to prevent publication of the emails.
Gray and Eynon-Kokrda also planned with Sebring how they would respond if the emails became public.
The emails did become public on June 1 in newspaper reports, and Sebring resigned from the OPS job June 2.
At the start of Monday's meeting, Gray said she limited information about Sebring that she released to board members because of “a complete misunderstanding” of what Sebring had engaged in and “because of the concern that at some point the board might have to terminate Dr. Sebring's contract.”
She said she wanted to limit the board's information so that it could remain impartial in case the matter went to the board for a decision.
“We each make the best decisions we can, given the facts that we have,” she said.
She said it's appropriate to review board policies on the responsibilities of board leaders.
Sandra Jensen, a former president of the school board, said nothing ever came to her that she didn't share with the board, though she may have waited until a closed session to do so.
Jensen said she had heard that Gray and Eynon-Kokrda knew why Sebring abruptly resigned in Des Moines before the information was revealed in news stories. The reason was “common knowledge” in Des Moines, Jensen said.
“I went privately to the president of the board and to the attorney to the board, and I asked them specifically,” Jensen said. “I asked them, I said, ‘This is what's out there. Is this in fact what's occurring?' and I was told, ‘No.' I was told, ‘Absolutely not.' I was told, ‘There's no communication.' And so I believed that, and I left it.”
If Gray and Eynon-Kokrda felt they couldn't share it with the board, they should have said they were not at liberty to discuss it, Jensen said.
Jensen, who said she hasn't decided how she'll vote Monday, said she then sought a copy of the district's contract with Omaha law firm Baird Holm, the amount of legal fees associated with the superintendent search and a clarification of the firm's duties in relation to the board.
That request caused “a huge dust-up by some members of this board that I had the audacity to ask questions,” Jensen said.
Gray said Jensen was straying from the point of the discussion and preventing the conversation from moving forward.
“If you want to try to muzzle me,” Jensen said, “just as you did not respond to my request for information ... .”
Some board members criticized The World-Herald for running the story about Sebring's communications with Gray and Eynon-Kokrda.
Board member Bambi Bartek described the newspaper as “shameless.”
But Kratky applauded The World-Herald for exposing what happened.
“Thank goodness for The World-Herald,” Kratky said. “There are times they need to step up to the plate and clean things up.”
Board member Mary Ellen Drickey said Eynon-Kokrda “has always served us impeccably.”
Board member Justin Wayne said the district needs to have a leader who can “restore credibility.”
“I personally at this time do not believe that Ms. Gray can do it,” he said. “But I'm one person. And there's a bigger issue of hiring a superintendent. And if this board believes she can do it, then we move forward.”
The board needs to avoid a “sideshow” over the Sebring situation, he said.
Board member Nancy Huston said she supports Gray and Eynon-Kokrda.
Bartek said she has “total support” for the way things were handled. “There was nothing else you could do,” she said.
The board under Gray's leadership has taken great strides forward, she said.
Board member Barb Velázquez said Eynon-Kokrda has demonstrated the “utmost professionalism” on district business.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ben Gray objects to ‘pathetic' comment
Michael Moran listened to the Omaha school board for an hour Monday, thinking he and others would have a chance to publicly comment.
But OPS Board President Freddie Gray said the special meeting had no time for public comment. The board was going into closed session to talk about other issues.
The “disturbance” that happened next led an off-duty police officer at the meeting to call for another officer to come to Omaha Public Schools central offices.
“Ma'am, would you explain to me why,” said Moran, raising his right hand, still wanting to comment.
Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, sitting two rows behind Moran, said, “You all go into executive session. You all going to go into executive session.”
Gray, who is married to Freddie Gray, walked over and stood in front of Moran, who was sitting with Doug Kagan, both of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom.
“That's pathetic,” Moran said, looking at Freddie Gray. “You are pathetic.”
“And you're pathetic,” Ben Gray told Moran. “You don't tell my wife she's pathetic. Don't you do that. Don't you do that.”
“He's going to say what he wants to say,” said Kagan.
“Don't you do that,” Gray repeated.
“I have the right,” said Moran, wagging his right index finger.
“Don't you do that,” said Gray, shaking his left index finger.
“Ben, Ben,” someone shouted.
Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network, walked over and escorted Gray away from the discussion as Moran tried to explain himself.
“Mr. Gray, I have the right. I am a citizen of Omaha,” he said. “I have the right, as I would come down to City Council meetings, to voice my opinion.” — Jonathon Braden
Contact the writer: email@example.com 402-444-1074,twitter.com/jonathonbraden