Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sexy emails abort Omaha superintendency

Explicit emails between newly hired Omaha Superintendent Nancy Sebring and a man she was having an affair with have led her to resign before she started work, the Omaha World-Herald reported this weekend.

The emails became public after requests by that newspaper and the Des Moines Register, which covers the job she was leaving. The Register reports that Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the search firm that handled Sebring's hiring in Des Moines and Omaha, does not request candidates' work emails but may do so in the future.

The public records request turned up 40 emails between Sebring and her lover (both married), discussing their sexual relationship and referring to photos of the man's penis (read an edited and photo-free version here). They were sent to and from her district email account, some on a laptop and iPad belonging to the district, the Des Moines paper reports.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I linked to an Omaha World-Herald series that looked at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as a reform model that Sebring might learn from. Now it appears that Omaha is offering an unsettling example of how difficult it can be to vet a new leader.

According to published accounts,  Des Moines school district staff who were filling the newspapers' public records requests came across the explicit emails. They notified the Des Moines board, which confronted Sebring.  In a closed meeting with the board,  Sebring abruptly changed her resignation date from June 30 to May 10.  Both Sebring and the board president cited the demands of getting ready for her new job,  and apparently did not disclose the revelations to the Omaha board.

Meanwhile, the Des Moines paper reports that Sebring tried to get rid of the emails, while staff  talked the Omaha reporters into modifying their records request so the personal emails wouldn't turn up. When the emails went public Friday,  Sebring tendered her resignation to the Omaha board at a hastily-called Saturday meeting.

I have no reason to think Heath Morrison,  who starts as CMS superintendent on July 1,  has been engaged in anything like this.  But it does provide a great illustration of why reporters and the public should be wary when public bodies try to block access to officials' correspondence.

Here in Charlotte, I filed a request on May 21 for school board emails related to travel spending and the Chamber of Commerce's trip to London. I modified the time frame of the request when I was told emails more than a month old would require time and expense,  only to be told eight days later that it would cost $855 to get the recent emails. CMS appeared to back away from that pricing, but more than two weeks after the initial request,  I have yet to hear a timetable for when those emails might be provided.

Tahira Stalberte in the public information office says she's just starting to review them: "There are nearly 900 emails in Ericka's inbox,  so it will take time.  After Ericka's,  I will need to review the inboxes for the other board members as well."

Chances are,  those emails will only provide a few more details on the story I've already reported about Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart's attempt to pay for the London trip.  But if I needed a nudge not to let the request slide, the Sebring episode surely provides it.

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