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Guest Commentary

June 21, 2012
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Sebring isn’t the story; she’s the footnote

By Jonathan Narcisse

Dr. Nancy Sebring will be remembered in Des Moines for the salacious emails so thoroughly vetted by media over the past few weeks rather than her disastrous tenure as superintendent.

Her “crimes” eventually caught up with her, however, and so I am not interested now in much more, regarding her, than praying for her healing and her family’s healing.

Besides, she was an employee of the “directors” of the Des Moines Public School District, as we were formally named, and so anything that happened on her watch — by law, custom and reason — is ultimately the school board’s responsibility.

For several years, my newspaper, The Communicator, served as the publication of record for the Des Moines Public School Board. Following my election, I was prepared for mountains of meaningless information designed to overwhelm us by clever administrators.

What I found instead was a school board that had totally abdicated its responsibilities beginning with its most fundamental duties.

At my very first meeting, directors approved 300 pages of policies and procedures without reviewing them. Some key policies had not been updated for a decade or more. Policies, such as our emergency drill procedures, were outdated and put the district and individual board members at risk.

At my second meeting, I was chastised for asking about the 600-800 students who had missed 10 or more days of school at one of our district’s three Dropout Factory High Schools. I was refused an answer. Later that evening, following a meeting solely dedicated to giving the Boesen group — purchasers of Rice Field — a huge cash payout, I was threatened by Sebring and the directors with a lawsuit if I didn’t turn over my entire email list and cease all communications with the public.

Over the next few months, I paid a high price for exposing wrongs such as the attempt to sell 1800 Grand — insured by taxpayers for $56 million excluding contents — for $2.9 million to a downtown developer, and payments to Taylor Ohde Kitchell for billed time that didn’t exist and illegal reimbursements. (Bid laws prohibit certain reimbursements that were not included in the original bid because if other bidders knew they were available they could lowball their bids, too. The district was pinged on this one.)

Closed-door meetings were often held in violation of the law. One meeting in particular involved an action so egregious it would likely result in prosecution of school board members if the meeting was made public.

During my time on the board, directors did not read the bills they approved.

Sebring’s revealed emails proved the board ignored rules in areas like nepotism and reporting at the Charter School, but their negligence was a constant during my time on the board.

There was a 19-point drop in the graduation rate on Sebring’s watch. The board gave her a raise.

During her tenure, Johns Hopkins researchers discovered Des Moines not only had more Dropout Factory High Schools than all of Iowa’s other school districts combined (excluding Council Bluffs) but the same number as Washington, D.C., the poster district for poor public education.

When Sebring used district resources to engage in electioneering, the board members not only failed to discipline her, they encouraged her.

Following the discovery of Sebring’s sexcapades, abuse of power and manipulations, the board, guilty of gross negligence, announced it was time to move on.

The arrogance of the directors confirms how clueless they are.

Should they dwell on Sebring’s adventures? No, except those that “may” have involved staff or a “close board member” and those relationships of hers that affected hirings and promotions. Her sister and friend were not the only incompetents employed with tax dollars.

Instead of “moving on,” the board must answer why it ignored so many violations by the Sebring administration. Unfortunately they don’t get it.

One overpowering fact remains — Sebring was our employee. That makes her the footnote not the story.

Once elected, directors take an oath. They violated their sacred oath, and they ignored and broke the law.

That’s the story — a school board guilty of CIETC-like negligence, misfeasance, malfeasance, dereliction of duty, habitual lying and betrayal of more than taxpayers but our children. CV

Jonathan Narcisse is the editor of the Iowa Bystander and served as a director on the board of education for the Des Moines Public Schools.

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