* * * * *
Rocked by a storm of controversy, the Omaha school board stayed with the captain they know Monday night.
Board members voted 8-4 to keep Freddie Gray as board president despite her handling of the Nancy Sebring situation.
Casting votes to keep Gray were Bambi Bartek, Mary Ellen Drickey, Marian Fey, Nancy Huston, Mary Morrissey, Shirley Tyree, Barbara Velazquez and Gray.
Voting to remove Gray were Kersten Borer, Sandra Jensen, Nancy Kratky and Justin Wayne.
It was a solid vote of confidence in the face of calls to remove Gray, who came under criticism for not telling board members or the public after learning that OPS's superintendent-to-be had resigned her last job for sending racy emails on a school computer.
Sebring eventually resigned from the Omaha job after newspapers published stories about the emails.
Gray and OPS board attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda later said Sebring minimized what she had done, so they didn't feel the need to share what they knew or to launch an investigation to find out more about the emails that cost Sebring her job as superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools.
They also said they viewed the situation as a personnel matter requiring privacy.
Monday's vote means Gray will continue as the public face of OPS, conducting meetings and serving as board spokesman, at least through the end of the year.
She is running for re-election this year in Subdistrict 2, which includes north Omaha. Her opponent is James M. English, a retired OPS teacher and administrator. Both are Democrats.
Gray was re-elected to the school board in 2008 after running unopposed.
Before the vote, Gray made a statement highlighting her goals and accomplishments and urging her fellow board members to “continue on this journey with unity and purpose regardless of tonight's outcome.”
Gray said she wished to be judged on her entire work, not just the Sebring situation.
“There are privacy and withholding of information rationales that can be debated,” she said. “But it comes down to my fellow board members looking at my president's tenure totally and coming to the conclusion that we are, or are not, moving in the right direction.”
She said she believed that she still could be an effective board spokesman and leader. With a crowd of nearly 250 people packing the board room, Gray's supporters on the board praised her leadership and said she shouldn't be removed for a well-intentioned mistake.
“She made a mistake,” Tyree said. “She's going to have to live with that mistake.”
Tyree said she didn't want to disrupt the board as a second superintendent search gets under way and kids head back to school on Aug. 20.
Wayne said the board “can't preach about accountability if we don't hold ourselves accountable.”
He said he wanted Gray to acknowledge that she made a mistake. If she did, he said, he would be willing to support the board publicly censuring Gray but allowing her to stay on as president.
“I heard a lot of people today talking about mistake. I've never heard Mrs. Gray use that word,” Wayne said.
Kersten Borer made the motion to remove Gray, calling her a “bold and passionate leader” but saying that removal was necessary “in order to move forward, improve communication and regain trust from the community.”
Wayne seconded the motion, but the votes weren't there.
Huston said Gray was at the center of “a scandal she did not create.”
“She has been a good president,” Huston said. “She is leading us.”
Bartek praised Gray for her skill at building relationships and for effectively representing the school board.
“It's so easy to look back and say what we would have, could have, should have done,” she said. “But we can't go back. We just have to deal with what we have. And I truly do believe that what she did, she did for the right reasons.”
The atmosphere in the board room was highly charged but civil as speakers alternately criticized and praised Gray.
Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network and father of two children in OPS schools, blamed the news media for attacking Gray and creating “a false crisis.”
He said the district has steadily increased graduation and college attendance rates, improved reading and writing test scores, raised the number of students taking the ACT and improved other indicators.
“All these signs point to the fact that you are making progress,” Barney said.
A Republican Party official again raised allegations of Gray having a conflict of interest when she voted to allocate more than $65,000 to nonprofit organizations though her husband was serving at the time on their boards of directors. Gray has called those allegations “meritless.”
Doug Kagan, president of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, called on the board to censure and remove Gray, cancel the district's contract with the Baird Holm law firm and no longer have Eynon-Kokrda serve as attorney.
Kagan said Gray had an ethical responsibility to immediately inform other board members of a possible scandal affecting the superintendent selection. Gray demonstrated “incredibly poor judgment by failing to do so,” he said.
The controversy exploded last month after Sebring released emails to The World-Herald showing that Gray and Eynon-Kokrda knew — weeks before newspapers reported it — that Sebring sent personal emails to a lover on a Des Moines Public Schools computer.
The emails disclosed by Sebring contradicted Gray's public comments, made after the story broke, that she had heard only “rumors” and “innuendo” about the explicit emails.
Gray had also denied that Sebring ever told her or Eynon-Kokrda about them.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, email@example.com
Freddie Gray remains OPS board president
Freddie Gray comments after meeting