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Legality of Des Moines school board meeting questioned

By   /   May 21, 2012  /   2 Comments

By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES — Des Moines school board members had scheduled a closed-door meeting to address Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s performance prior to her abrupt resignation, according to a timeline provided by Phil Roeder, district spokesman.

The board sent notices for the private May 10 meeting at 11:30 a.m. May 9. About 12 hours after the notices were sent, Sebring sent an email to Board President Teree Caldwell-Johnson, Vice President Dick Murphy and Pat Lantz, general counsel for the district, announcing her resignation that went into effect immediately.

She originally was slated to leave Iowa’s largest school district June 30 to take a job leading the school district in Omaha, Neb.

Board members still held an 80-minute private session the next day, citing personnel reasons, before approving Sebring’s resignation and appointing her interim replacement, Tom Ahart, the assistant superintendent.

It was reported that the board closed the meeting after Sebring’s resignation and used it to discuss a replacement. The board already has a closed-door meeting policy stating a superintendent succession plan, according to district documents.

Sebring had a rocky tenure in Des Moines.

She opened the city’s first charter school, which her twin sister was hired to run. Her sister, Nina Rasmusson, recently resigned from the position effective June 30 amid an internal audit of the school’s troubled finances. Sebring was also at the helm of the district when Rasmusson’s boyfriend, Steve Johns, became the new principal of East High School, Iowa’s third largest high school.

Sebring’s resignation letter cited the need for more time to prepare for her move and daughter’s wedding as the reason for her sudden departure.

Iowa law allows private meetings “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.” The board relied on the exemption to close its meeting.

Iowa law says meetings involving employee performance are open, unless the individual requests their closure for fear of irreparable damage. Sebring and Ahart provided the board with written requests to close the meeting only after notice of the private session was posted, according to district documents.

Roeder said law allows the individuals to verbally ask to close it, so the timing of the written notices was moot.

Iowa Watchdog filed a complaint Friday with the Iowa Ombudsman’s Office contesting the legality of the closed meeting and asking for the board to disclose a copy of the meeting’s tape. The office now is investigating the matter and will make a final ruling. It only can urge public agencies to release the tape, if officials determine the meeting should have been held in public, Angela McBride, assistant ombudsman said Friday.

The length of the investigations typically vary, she said. It can take longer if the public entity didn’t tape the meeting or if those involved are uncooperative. The matter could be sent onto the Iowa Attorney General’s Office if the agency is found to have violated the open meetings law egregiously. That, however, is rare, McBride said.

Iowa Watchdog on Friday also requested through the Freedom of Information Act emails of board members and Sebring for May 9 and 10. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office advises that routine requests for information should be handled immediately. A reasonable delay shall not exceed 20 calendar days and ordinarily should not exceed 10 business days.

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