Political analyst examines OPS fallout

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July 30th, 2012

Omaha, NE – The Omaha Public School Board is having a rough couple of months. First, it had to scrap its pick for OPS superintendent after salacious emails were made public. Then, the OPS Board’s president and counsel had to answer to reports they knew about those emails before they were made public. Now, the board president is facing calls to resign. Robyn Wisch checked in with political analyst and University of Nebraska Omaha professor Paul Landow for some perspective on this developing story.

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Robyn Wisch: Paul, thanks so much for joining us today.

Paul Landow: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.

RW: Let’s go back to the beginning here. Nancy Sebring resigned early from her position as superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools in May, and a little bit later, she resigned as OPS superintendent before she really took the job. All due to some salacious emails between her and a married man that were made public. Now we’re finding out a couple OPS board members (OPS Board President Freddie Gray and OPS Board Counsel Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda) knew about the emails before they were published. How big a deal is it that the board members knew about the emails and didn’t act on it?

Paul Landow is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska Omaha. (Courtesy photo)

PL: “It’s a pretty big deal. And I think you can tell that by the reactions so far from the school board. The OPS attorney and the president of the OPS board apparently knew about the emails, about the resignation and the reason for the resignation several weeks before it was made public and did not share that information with the rest of that board. You can put yourself in the position of a board member. You were in many ways kept in the dark and frankly, you could see that as kind of having been made a fool of because you were defending a set of circumstances that didn’t exist and your board president knew it. And this now turns into kind of an open political battle.”

RW: Some of what they’ve said in defense is that they didn’t know the extent of the emails and were maybe trying to keep private information private. Is there any justification in that argument that this is none of anybody’s business?

The Omaha World-Herald reports several OPS board members expressed support for Board President Freddie Gray during Monday’s meeting, while two members said her “ability to lead had been compromised.” A vote on Gray’s presidency could be held Aug. 6. (Photo courtesy OPS)

PL: “It’s an admirable thought and it’s reasonable to try to protect Ms. Sebring as she went through this thing from the standpoint that they were personal emails, they were about personal matters and it would have been nice not to have them made public. But the problem with that is the obvious, which is she used Des Moines school district computers to send the emails, she used her Des Moines school district email address and she did it in the open while competing for another job. These are public records and there’s really no way to defend the use of government property to send private emails by later claiming ‘Oh, but they’re private.’ If they were private, you should have used your own computer on your own time.”

RW: Now that brings up the point that the only way the Omaha World-Herald, which reported last week that the board members knew of the emails, that the paper was only able to get a hold of the correspondence that showed that by Nancy Sebring actually providing it to them because it all went through the OPS attorney’s office which is not subject to public information laws. Can you talk about that almost loophole in the transparency of the OPS board?

PL: “It is a problem. And a loophole is a good description for it. This kind of issue crops up any time outside legal counsel is involved in government issues. So this would be a matter of, even the city of Omaha for example, hiring an outside attorney for a specific reason, and then the outside attorney saying our emails are not subject to public records law when the emails of the Omaha city attorney’s office likely would be.

“So it’s a very difficult issue. It’s never been fully resolved by the Nebraska Legislature or the Nebraska court system. And you can see where the public would have a real problem with this. It appears as though you’re almost trying to hide something by couching it in terms of ‘Well, it was done by a private attorney.’ It seems like it should either be public business or not public business. And if it’s public business, it should be subject to public records laws.”

RW: That brings up another point. Freddie Gray is the OPS board president who reportedly knew about these emails. And her husband is Ben Gray, Omaha City Councilman. KETV posted raw video of Monday morning’s board meeting where Ben Gray got into a heated argument with a member of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom defending his wife. So it’s kind of a personal issue there for him. Is that a conflict in and of itself?

PL: “The way you’d have to look at it is they’re both elected officials. So they’ve been sent to do their work by the people of their districts. No doubt about that and no question there. But of course, the obvious should also be governing the thing, which is, Mr. Gray is a member of the City Council, he should exercise his duties as a City Councilmember. Ms. Gray is a member of the Omaha School Board, she should be exercising her duties as a school board member. The two don’t cross. And for Mr. Gray to get involved in school board business, as it appears he did this morning, is clearly stepping over the line and is inappropriate.”

RW: Well, we’ll keep watching this story as it develops. Paul Landow is a professor of political science at UNO. Thanks for taking the time today.

PL: Happy to be here. Thank you.

The OPS Board also announced Monday it has selected an interim superintendent. Virginia Moon, former superintendent at Ralston Public Schools, will manage OPS as the board continues its search to find a permanent replacement.

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