What's on your mind, Bleeding Heartland readers? I'm late with this weekend's open thread, but at least I'm not as derelict in my duties as some central Iowa school board members.
The salacious e-mails former Des Moines Public Schools superintendent Nancy Sebring sent and received on her official district account (during business hours) have been the talk of the town during the past week. That situation was quite the train wreck. I'm not posting any of the sexy e-mail content, which voyeuristic readers can find elsewhere. Sebring's stupidity was astonishing and cost her a cushy job as superintendent of the Omaha schools. I'm more troubled by how she had the Des Moines school board under her thumb, and how they and district staff covered for her when she resigned this spring.
That board's lack of proper oversight is not news to anyone who's been following the various nepotism controversies that have dotted Sebring's tenure as superintendent. Hiring Sebring's twin sister to run the new charter school was a disaster waiting to happen. Sebring didn't keep her promise to be "hands off" at the new school.
Scores of emails show Sebring acted as a sounding board for her sister Nina Rasmusson. This spring, as criticism against Rasmusson mounted, Sebring encouraged Rasmusson to resign, rather than risk getting fired. Rasmusson resigned April 18, effective June 30. Sebring was already on the way out. She was hired in early April to take the helm of the Omaha district, effective July 1, then abruptly resigned early, on May 10.
Des Moines School Board President Teree Caldwell-Johnson said that she hadn't seen all the released emails related to the charter school, but that the ones she had seen were eye-opening, disappointing and disconcerting.
"It's more than a little bit upsetting to have been told, 'I'm hands off,' by (Sebring) and then (to see) - based on the quantity and volume of emails - that she was more actively involved than anyone would have actually thought," Caldwell-Johnson said.
The school board should have been monitoring the situation to make sure Sebring wasn't interfering on her sister's behalf at the charter school. Graham Gillette, a former member of the Des Moines School Board, has been on the case about problems related to the charter school for a long time. He's right on target here:
The huffing and puffing by suddenly outraged school board members over these sexually explicit emails and how policy was broken with their transmission is a sloppily choreographed dance to avoid the real issue. Strike all of the sad bedroom talk found in these emails and we get a peek into Sebring's unfettered and selfish leadership. This school board has been a fervent and breathless group of Sebring backers for the last six years, allowing Sebring to operate with little to no oversight. [...]
The really scurrilous stuff in the emails confirms a pattern of behavior the school board has rigorously denied and, at times, even defended as appropriate. One needs look no further than the charter school to see an example of Sebring's active support of friends and relatives in Des Moines. Her willingness to dangle a job under her management in Omaha to her six-week lover proves beyond a doubt Sebring felt little shame in using public jobs to reward those who pleased her personally.
The emails also show Sebring was actively involved with the charter school. This had to be plainly obvious to the school board as it was conducting its own 'thorough' review of the failing school. If it wasn't, one should wonder what exactly the board was reviewing.
It comes down to this, Nancy Sebring convinced the school board to edit, pass and strictly follow a governance model that stripped the Des Moines School Board of most of the activities an effective body conducts in order to ensure the public needs are being met.
During the Sebring years the school board became little more than an out-of-touch, disengaged cheerleading squad.
Regarding Sebring's "active support of friends and relatives," get a load of this.
Questions about nepotism arose again in 2011, when Rasmusson's boyfriend was hired as principal at East High, the state's largest high school.
Another friend of the family, Jennifer Kreashko, was hired as the charter school's office manager.
Gillette argues persuasively that the school board may have violated the law by holding a closed meeting on Sebring's early departure. He wants an investigation of these events.
I filed a request with the Office of Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman to investigate the 12:00 p.m., May 10 closed meeting of the Des Moines Public School Board. This is the link to the letter to the Ombudsman and this is the link to the attachments I included with the letter to the Ombudsman.
I contend the Des Moines Public School Board improperly went into closed session on May 10 to discuss political strategy on how to best handle the resignation of Nancy Sebring.
In the minutes, hours and days following the meeting, the board president and District officials misled the public to why Sebring resigned. They have subsequently said they did so because the truth would come out eventually. It is not up to public officials or employees to decide when and how the truth surfaces.
Rekha Basu touched on this problem in one of her recent columns for the Des Moines Register:
The board and central administration have shown a disturbing pattern of speaking with one voice, raising questions of how effectively the district could investigate the board's relationship to its chief executive. Caldwell-Johnson and school district spokesman Phil Roeder, for example, separately offered this explanation for why the board misled the public about the reasons for Sebring's early departure: They say they did so knowing the truth would eventually come out under newspapers' freedom of information requests for public records.
So it's OK to mislead the press now if you know you'll be forced to come clean later? That hardly inspires confidence in the system.
And mislead they did. After accepting Sebring's resignation on May 10, Caldwell-Johnson told the Register, "She's (Sebring) now come to the conclusion that there were some things that she needed to accomplish before she started at Omaha, and that's what brought this about." As we now know, that's not what brought it about. It was the board's discovery of dozens of sexually explicit emails Sebring had written on a district computer and email account, on work time.
In effect, Caldwell-Johnson and Roeder are telling us we should assume anything they say might be a lie, unless a public records request later confirms their statement. Duly noted.
Publishing the sexy e-mails has humiliated Sebring, but the school board members should be even more embarrassed by this excerpt from the correspondence:
In early February this year, when several parents complained more vocally about perceived poor management of the charter school, Sebring not only acted as a buffer for her sister, but confided in her as well, the emails show.
"We're having a little trouble reigning (sic) in two of our new board members," Sebring said in an exchange on Feb. 10. "They are well-intentioned but crossing the line. I will fill you in later."
It is unfortunately common for school boards to serve as a rubber stamp for administrators. That behavior is particularly inexcusable when Sebring was running interference for her twin sister.
Speaking of school boards that let the superintendents call the shots, what the heck is this about?
A thistle to (now former) Ankeny schools Superintendent Matthew Wendt for deciding to accept $176,000 from the school district. That's close to a year's salary, just for taking a job in another state. School board members say they never would have agreed to such a huge transition allowance had they known he was going to sign a contract with a new school district in Illinois the next day. Wendt defends his decision, saying the board knew he had been working behind the scenes for months to secure employment elsewhere. The board members hardly come across as the brightest bulbs in this deal. Still, Wendt should have allowed the school district to keep the money to pay for the cost of educating students in a growing district that has paid him a generous salary since 2007.
Don't blame Wendt, blame school board members who approved that transition allowance.
Before I end this post, here's one final note on the Sebring scandal. She has filed a lawsuit "seeking to stop the school district from releasing further personal emails sent and received on her work computers." The Des Moines Register is intervening on the side of the Des Moines Public Schools, which is complying with open records requests.
Legal experts told the Register this week that Sebring and her lawyers face an uphill battle in their quest to stop the district from releasing any more emails.
"Courts have generally held that there should be no expectation of privacy of anything you do on a work email," said John Edwards, an associate dean at the Drake University Law School. "That's why you have Gmail and Yahoo accounts."
Free advice for those carrying on extramarital affairs and anyone else who prefers to keep personal conversations out of the public domain: I wouldn't count on any e-mail correspondence remaining truly private. I've heard that tech-savvy people can gain unauthorized access to content from yahoo and gmail accounts.