The Omaha Public Schools Board of Education has been the subject of controversy for almost a year, since the hiring of Nancy Sebring as superintendent, who resigned before she ever assumed the job.
In 2012, State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh introduced a bill that would have shrunk the OPS board and forced new elections. That bill failed to gain traction in the Legislature. But now, a year, later, a similar bill appears to be on a fast track to approval, and the board is facing a legal action that could declare half its members invalid. Here’s a look at the major controversies the board has faced in the past year.
Q. What was the controversy with Nancy Sebring?
Former board president Freddie Gray and district lawyer Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda knew that their newly selected superintendent Nancy Sebring sent racy emails to a lover on a Des Moines Public Schools computer. They knew that Sebring quit her Des Moines superintendent job because Des Moines officials discovered the emails. But Gray and Kokrda kept what they knew secret, from other OPS board members and the public. They denied knowing about the emails after the Omaha World-Herald and Des Moines Register published reports on them. Sebring later released several of her own emails to the World-Herald, which she had exchanged with Eynon-Kokrda, that showed Gray and the lawyer knew about Sebring’s sexy emails and her efforts to prevent them from going public. Tarred by the scandal, Sebring resigned the Omaha job before even starting.
Gray and Eynon-Kokrda later said Sebring minimized to them 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 Des Moines job. They said they kept board members out of it to make sure the board would be impartial if they had to fire Sebring later.
Q. What about the payout to retiring superintendent John Mackiel?
Last September, Gray and other board members were surprised that the district owed a $1 million retirement payout to Superintendent John Mackiel.
The payout was written into Mackiel’s contract years ago, but board members — and the district’s finance staff — were caught off-guard by the amount.
Q. Did the OPS board make any attempts to restructure itself?
A. After the Sebring scandal, board members held a vote of confidence on Gray’s leadership. They voted 8-4 to keep Gray as board president despite her handling of the situation. In a meeting packed with 250 people, Gray said she believed that she still could be an effective board spokesman and leader. Her supporters praised her leadership and said she made a well-intentioned mistake. But others said a leadership change was needed to regain the community’s trust.
Q. What’s the latest controversy about when OPS board members were sworn in?
A. The board did not follow a state law that says board members “shall take and subscribe to the usual oath of office before the first Monday in January following their election . . . In case any person so elected fails so to do, his or her election shall be void and the vacancy shall be filled by the board.”
The first Monday in January was Jan. 7.
Q. When were board members sworn in?
A. Then-board president Gray told a investigator for the Douglas County Attorney’s Office that she and Mary Morrissey were sworn in during the day Jan. 7. Four new board members were sworn in just prior to a board meeting that night: Sarah Brumfield, Danyelle Baratta, Nicole Walker-Nash and Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum.
Q. What has happened to former board President Freddie Gray?
A. Gray resigned from the board Jan. 23. She had been re-elected the school board president Jan. 7, but it required 30 rounds of voting. Gray announced in a letter that she had taken a position with a new company that would make it difficult for her to effectively serve on the board. Marian Fey, the board vice president, took over as president.
Q. Why is Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine involved?
A. He is the chief law enforcement officer in the county.
Q. Is he filing charges against OPS officials?
A. No, he is filing a civil action. The action is called “quo warranto.”
Q. What is a quo warranto action?
A. A quo warranto action is a challenge filed against any person believed to be unlawfully holding any public office. It is basically a legal demand that the public official show evidence why he should not forfeit office.
The action may be taken by a county attorney or a private individual. Quo warranto is intended to prevent the exercise of powers that are not conferred by law
Q. Has it ever been used before?
A. Yes, but it’s rare.
Kleine said he was not aware of it being used before in his office.
In 1999, an Omaha attorney asked then Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg to pursue a quo warranto action to invalidate Lee Polikov’s appointment as Sarpy County Attorney. Stenberg declined, saying Polikov satisfied the job requirements.
In 1990, a lawyer for then Gov. Kay Orr filed a “quo warranto” action in hopes of resolving a dispute regarding a Nebraska Board of Parole member’s right to stay in office. The man had contested his firing by the governor.
In 1984, two members of the McCook Public Power District were the subject of quo warranto actions.
A quo warranto action was also taken by the Sarpy County Attorney in the early 1970s to remove then Sarpy County Sheriff Dick Whitted.
Q. What happens after the quo warranto action is filed?
A. It’s up to the Douglas County District Court judge to decide whether to void the OPS elections. The judge would likely hold a hearing and take testimony before ruling, which means OPS officials could make their case that the six board members are lawfully seated.
Q. If the judge voids the elections, couldn’t the other six board members appoint replacements?
A. Normally, if a board member was unable to continue to serve, the remaining members would appoint a replacement who would serve until the next election. OPS’s 12-member board requires a majority of members to be present to fill any vacancies. Without the six who were sworn in earlier this month, the board would be one short of a majority. OPS would have to ask the Nebraska secretary of state to call a special election.
Q. When would the election be held?
A. It generally takes the secretary of state 60 to 90 days to prepare a special election, from notification to the day of the election.
Q. What happens if lawmakers in the meantime pass Scott Lautenbaugh’s bill to shrink the OPS board?
A. The bill, which appears on a fast track, offers an alternative resolution for the situation. The bill would shrink the board to nine members.
LB 125 has an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately upon being signed by the governor. But passing it with the clause requires 33 votes, not the usual 25. If passed, elections would be held in April and May, and the nine new members would take their oaths in June.