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Iowa Watchdog

Records show Des Moines school board president mislead public


DES MOINES – The former leader of the Des Moines School Board misled the public multiple times about former Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s departure and the circumstances surrounding it, according to court documents and district emails obtained by Iowa Watchdog.

These include board member Teree Caldwell-Johnson’s account of Sebring’s resignation and the reason for her departure. The documents also reveal details of an inappropriate closed door session that conflict with Sebring’s account of what happened, as well as emails between Caldwell-Johnson and Sebring leading up to her resignation.

Caldwell-Johnson’s statements were largely made in a news release that was leaked to at least one media outlet prior to sexually explicit emails between Sebring and her alleged lover, both of whom were married at the time, became public. Those emails were released nearly a month after Sebring’s resignation and Caldwell-Johnson’s public statement that Sebring was leaving her job early to help plan her daughter’s wedding and get ready for a new job leading the Omaha School District, which wasn’t the case.

Documents show conflicting accounts of what happened with Sebring resignation.

Documents show conflicting accounts of what happened with Sebring resignation.

Caldwell-Johnson did not return calls seeking comment. Sebring declined comment and, instead, deferred to the lawsuit she filed against the district.


Sebring’s lawsuit alleges that Caldwell-Johnson came to her house at 1 p.m. on May 9 to confront her about the emails and inform her she needed to retain a lawyer. She also told her the board was holding an emergency meeting the following day regarding the matter. Sebring consulted her attorney later that afternoon. It wasn’t until 11:30 p.m. that day that Sebring submitted her resignation, which was confirmed in the emails obtained by Iowa Watchdog.

“Due to the many personal issues which must be addressed prior to July 1, I respectfully request that the board accept my resignation effective immediately,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “While I make this request with some regret, I believe that the board and staff are in a good position to successfully transition to interim leadership.”

Sebring was also instructed by Pat Lantz, the district’s attorney, to sign a form allowing the board to hold a closed session. She alleges she was denied any opportunity to speak to the board, and she never told the board she wanted additional time to prepare for her transition to Omaha, according to her lawsuit.

“These were the reasons Dr. Sebring gave to either me personally, or in her letter of resignation,” Caldwell-Johnson wrote in her statement. “It wasn’t anyone [sic] intent to mislead given the release of these records were likely going to take place.”

Caldwell-Johnson told the public that Sebring immediately offered her resignation “within the first few minutes” of her initial conversation with her, according to her June 1 statement.

She also backtracked on her statement that no one’s reputation would be harmed by the closed door meeting, which was the reason the board cited under Iowa law for holding the executive session.

“The fact is you don’t know what’s going to be said in a closed session,” the statement said. “And in this case, we were discussing two individuals. I’m sorry if anyone felt misled at the time, but we were respecting the rights of our employees while at the same time being responsive to the release of these public records.”

The district faces a second lawsuit that alleges the board illegally held the closed door meeting. Graham Gillette, a former board member, filed the suit with the belief they used the nearly 90-minute session to discuss how to deal with the political fallout.

The minutes for the meeting spanned 15 pages. In one instance, from page 13 to 15, the judge ruled the board was outside of the law. The beginning statement reads, “(Board Member) Mr. Howard talked about a response to any media…”

A judge recently ruled in his favor after listening to the tape of the meeting. Redacted minutes and the recording of the meeting were provided to Gillette, who is required by law to keep it confidential. He can use it as evidence in his efforts to have the information released to the public.

“I am extremely disappointed with this situation,” Caldwell-Johnson wrote in the statement. “While Dr. Sebring violated a district policy, more importantly she showed poor judgment and took actions that were both beneath her position and embarrassing to the district.”

“Our parents, staff and taxpayers have the right to demand more.”

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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