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Court orders Des Moines board to turn over closed-session tape

5/3/2013

A Polk County judge Friday agreed to review the tape of a closed-door meeting held by the Des Moines School Board in regards to former Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s controversial departure.

Graham Gillette, a former school board member, brought a lawsuit against the district last year requesting that a judge review the tape from the meeting, which he alleges was illegally closed to provide the board the chance to deal with the political fallout of the resignation.

District Court Judge Karen Romano said in her ruling Friday afternoon the board’s statements regarding the meeting are inconsistent and demonstrate “a credible concern regarding the reason the Board held a closed session.”

The district must provide the court with the unredacted minutes, transcript and audio recording by May 10.

Judge rules in favor of former board member, demands Des Moines school district hand over materials from closed session.

Judge rules in favor of former board member, demands Des Moines school district hand over materials from closed session.

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“The statements made by (Des Moines Public School) officials following the May 10 meeting and those made three weeks later when the real reasons behind Dr. Sebrings’ resignation became known were misleading,” Gillette said. “These statements called into question the propriety of the May 10 meeting and the Board’s conduct.  The Court’s decision to grant an in camera review is a victory for open government.”

(In full disclosure, Gillette is a periodic contributor to Iowa Watchdog).

Sebring left the district about a year ago after district officials found she was using district computers to send racy emails to her lover. Both Sebring and the man were married to other people.

The board closed the meeting “to evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance, or discharge is being considered,” which is allowed under Iowa’s Open Meeting laws.

Sebring requested the board close the May 2012 meeting “to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation,” according to board documents.

Board members came out of the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, to announce Sebring’s abrupt resignation. Then Board President Teree-Caldwell Johnson attributed her departure to Sebring’s need for additional time to prepare for her daughter’s wedding and a new job leading the Omaha School District. She later resigned from that position as well.

Caldwell-Johnson went on to say that Sebring’s performance was never discussed and it was unclear whether holding an open session would have caused anyone harm.

Three weeks later, however, media outlets accessed emails between Sebring and her lover, some of which were sent during working hours. Additional emails showed board members had found Sebring’s emails and confronted her. At that time, she offered her resignation. It was sent via email the night before the closed board meeting.

Caldwell-Johnson said she misled the public earlier because she knew it would come out in media reports eventually.

Romano said in her ruling if board members understood the emails in question would be released to the public, then it’s unclear whether it had sufficient reasoning to close the meeting to protect the reputation of the individuals discussed during the closed session.

“If the stated purpose for holding a closed session is true, then a member of the Board may have made untrue statements to the press following the meeting. Conversely, if the statements made to the press are true, then the stated purpose for closing the meeting may be untrue, and may be an unlawful reason to close the session,” Romano wrote.

 Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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