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Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary

10/3/2012

Beating a dead horse? Hardly.

“The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” Theodore Roosevelt            

The last thing most of us want to hear is more about former Des Moines Schools superintendent Nancy Sebring’s sexually explicit emails. The emails provided insight into Sebring’s personal life, led to her hasty departure from Des Moines and ended her job in Omaha before it began. The emails painted a sad picture and made for uncomfortable reading. It is best to let the personal sections of the emails fade from public discussion.             

However, the parts relating to Sebring’s professional duties shine light on significant dysfunction within the district. The school board had it backwards. It was allowing the superintendent to direct the elected board. This information should not be lost in the effort to put the salaciousness behind us. How the school board and individual members carried out their duties during Sebring’s tenure deserves thorough analysis. This includes the board’s handling of Sebring’s departure.                

Last week the Iowa Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on my behalf. I was somewhat hesitant to sign on to this case. I knew I would likely be ducking clichés: Throwing mud balls, stirring the pot and beating a dead horse were a few that came to mind. It was Teddy Roosevelt’s quote that convinced me to go forward. Government is you and I. If we look the other way — fail to challenge when we think something is wrong — government will no long serve us; it will serve itself.                

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The lawsuit asks the Court to review the audio recording of the closed May 10 Des Moines School Board meeting. When there is a significant question about the legality of a closed meeting, a citizen has two choices: Take the public body’s word it obeyed the law, or ask for an independent review. The only entity capable of such a review under Iowa law is the Court.              

The school board met in closed session for 80 minutes on May 10. Following the meeting, board president Teree Caldwell-Johnson announced the board would be accepting Sebring’s resignation, which had been received the previous day. We were told the board had also discussed the appointment of Thomas Ahart as acting superintendent, even though the board had taken action months before to name Ahart to the position automatically in the event of a vacancy.                

The public notice of the meeting stated it would be closed under this section of the law “to evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance, or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation and that individual requests a closed session.”              

So here’s the problem. The meeting was called after Caldwell-Johnson had confronted Sebring about the emails and, according to Caldwell-Johnson three weeks after the May 10 meeting, “Dr. Sebring offered to submit her resignation within the first few minutes of my initial conversation with her.” Moments after the May meeting, Caldwell-Johnson said the board did not discuss Sebring’s performance, and Sebring was not being considered for appointment, hiring or discharge. Caldwell-Johnson contended the discussion was about Sebring’s decision to speed her departure. Caldwell-Johnson went on to say this, “I don’t know if it (the meeting) would have caused anyone any harm. I think it’s just a procedural thing.”            

Since Sebring’s appointment, hiring, performance or discharge was not being considered, the board lacked the ability to discuss her resignation in private. If it did, Caldwell-Johnson’s “procedural thing” is, in reality, an illegal thing.

The lawsuit acknowledges discussion of Ahart’s professional competency would be appropriate under the law. But, remember, the board met for one hour and 20 minutes. It is a fair guess most of that time was spent discussing Sebring, not Ahart. More importantly, it is a good possibility the board spent that time planning how to handle the fallout. Elected officials cannot meet in private to plan a political response, even when the topic is dicey.

An employee can seek a closed session if he feels his reputation might be needlessly harmed. But, a public body cannot close its doors just because it feels talking on the record may harm board members’ political interests. CV

Graham Gillette lives in Des Moines with his wife and three kids. He runs a public affairs/communications consulting firm and is a past board member of Des Moines Public Schools.

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