By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES — The Des Moines School Board’s recent attempt to conceal misconduct by the former superintendent is part of long-standing pattern that some say has led to public distrust.
The board’s handling of former Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s departure set off a highly publicized firestorm of controversy over how Des Moines board members conduct business — ranging from their use of closed door meetings to covering up employee misdeeds.
Transparency issues, however, existed long before Sebring’s May 10 resignation for using district email to send sexually explicit messages to the married man with whom she was having an affair.
At least two former board members say the board routinely closed meetings illegally to talk about district business during their time on the board. District and state records also show multiple incidents where employees were forced out for wrongdoing, but the board allowed them to resign for “personal” reasons, keeping their misdeeds from the public.
Specific examples include a third-grade teacher at Wright Elementary School who the board said left the district for personal reasons. But records from the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners show he surrendered his teaching license after facing allegations of student abuse. Another elementary teacher was fired for stealing $1,050 from a staff morale fund, according to district officials’ testimony during an Iowa Workforce Development hearing. Board records, however, say she also resigned for personal reasons.
“This is flat out criminal,” said Jonathan Narcisse, who served on the board from 2007 to 2009. “When you are used to covering things up and getting away with it they probably don’t understand why this isn’t all going away. They probably think it’s about the solicitous emails and not them. That’s how these board members are. They have abused the public trust for so long that I am sure in their minds they did nothing wrong.”
Des Moines isn’t the only public entity in Iowa to face such controversies, said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary for the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. The state has a history of “huge” problems when it comes to enforcing its Open Meetings and Open Records laws, she said.
Lawmakers worked to remedy that this year when they passed a bill supported by Gov. Terry Branstad to create a Public Information Board to provide advice and training on the law. The board will have the authority to investigate possible violations and enforce laws. Iowa joins only a handful of states to have such a system of enforcement, Richardson said.
“There have been plenty of problems in the state where records are being withheld that shouldn’t be,” said state Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who helped introduce the legislation. “Iowa is an open state and the public has the right to have access to its government.”
Bill Howard, recently elected to the Des Moines School Board, said board members collectively agreed to mislead the public regarding Sebring’s abrupt departure. Howard and Patrick Sweeney, who also was recently elected, stood behind the board’s action in interviews with Iowa Watchdog.
Both, however, told voters before they were elected that the School Board needed greater transparency to regain the public’s trust.
Board President Teree Caldwell-Johnson and board members Dick Murphy, Cindy Elsbernd and Connie Boesen did not return calls seeking comment. Newly appointed board member Joe Jongewaard declined comment.
Some people have accused the board of giving Sebring too much unchecked power, calling the board members nothing more than a rubber stamp. New board members who questioned Sebring often faced pushback, according to Narcisse and Sebring’s recently released emails.
“Past school boards were buried under mountains of paperwork by the superintendent,” Narcisse said. “That’s what I expected. But what I found out when I got on the board was that Nancy Sebring basically handed us sippy cups of apple juice and, if we were good, Teddy Grahams (cookies), too. The superintendent had all of the power and you basically have little authority to hold her accountable. And that was OK.”
Sweeney received sharply worded emails from Sebring and Murphy after questioning 53 laptops that went missing at the charter school run by Sebring’s twin sister Nina Rasmusson, according to the emails. Rasmusson and other school officials failed to report the stolen computers and it didn’t come to light until police found several during a separate investigation.
“Who is in charge at the Top Secret DSM Charter School. We wonder why people have doubts about us and we have things like this happen,” Sweeney wrote in an email to board members and Sebring.
Murphy, who is the board’s liaison for the charter school, responded by saying there was nothing top secret about the school.
“The implication is that ‘Top Secret’ implies that I am in collusion in keeping information secret … Perhaps your description stems from the fact that you wanted some questions related to the Charter School included in our revisiting of the district Ends Statements. Why you wanted that done and not the Downtown School, or the Gateway School, or the Montessori school or any other school or program is somewhat puzzling,” he wrote.
Sebring forwarded Murphy’s email to Rasmusson, saying “we are having trouble reigning in two of our new board members. They are well intentioned but crossing the line.” In another email to Tom Ahart, now interim superintendent, she said, “Ya gotta love Dick Murphy,” in reference to his response to Sweeney.
Graham Gillette, who served on the board just before Sebring’s arrival in 2006, has criticized the board for giving Sebring the power they did, but said some of the same problems existed during his tenure.
“My very first meeting there was a motion to go into closed session,” Gillette said. “I objected because it was the first time I had heard that we were going into closed session. They went into recess to discuss how to handle it, because they had never had anyone challenge it.
“You need more information than the superintendent saying you are going into closed session. Once they go into closed session there is no way to determine whether it’s proper. It’s a self-policing activity as to whether they are discussing things appropriately or not.”
Below are some of the 600 emails sent and received by Sebring from February through May in which she discussed the Des Moines Public Charter School and district business.