By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES – A former Des Moines school board member is seeking court action to determine if the current board violated Iowa’s Open Meetings laws to discuss how to handle the political fallout of former Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s resignation.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed a lawsuit Monday in Polk County District Court on behalf of Graham Gillette, who served on the board from 2001 to 2004, to have a judge review the tape of a May 10 80-minute closed door meeting. Gillette is asking the judge to release any portion of the tape in which the board’s discussion fell outside of the law.
The board said it was meeting in closed session “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 and that individual requests a closed session.” They came out of the meeting and announced Sebring’s resignation and Tom Ahart, then assistant superintendent, would serve as the district’s interim leader.
Sebring, however, had submitted her resignation to the board via email May 9, meaning any discussion related to her would not have fallen within the law’s exception, Gillette and the ACLU are alleging. The only potential legal reason for the meeting was discussion surrounding Ahart’s appointment, Gillette said.
Teree Caldwell-Johnson, board president at the time, told the media that Sebring’s performance and potential discharge were not discussed during the closed meeting.
“Boards will go into closed session because they feel the topic is sensitive,” said Gillette, who also has children in the district. “This made a lot of people uncomfortable. But the comfortable factor doesn’t constitute a reason to go into closed session.”
“They may have gone behind closed doors to discuss how they would handle the fallout of this politically. But they can only go into closed session to handle what’s in the best interest of the person not the board itself,” he added.
Both the board and Sebring lied to the public following the meeting. Sebring wrote in her resignation letter that she needed more time to prepare for her new job in Omaha, which she was supposed to start July 1. She also resigned from that superintendent position after solicitous emails between her and her lover surfaced. Both Sebring and her lover were married.
The board stood behind the false account surrounding her resignation, until the emails became public by news outlets. Caldwell-Johnson said the board initially covered up the reason behind Sebring’s departure because the board knew the truth would eventually come out.
Board members and district officials have refused to release the tape from the meeting. Both the Iowa attorney general and state ombudsman said the matter didn’t fall within their jurisdiction, Gillette said.
Iowa Watchdog also filed a complaint with the ombudsman’s office following the meeting, but officials there dismissed it once the emails surfaced.
“I don’t want to burden the court with yet another lawsuit,” Gillette said. “But there is a strong public interest as to what this board discussed for 80 minutes. The greater question is when should public bodies go into closed session. Given what the board president said, it is common practice.”
ACLU took on the case because officials wanted a judge to determine if the school board abused open meeting laws.
“Iowa’s open government laws do not allow public officials to hide serious problems from public view just because they are embarrassing to certain officials,” said Randall Wilson, ACLU of Iowa legal director.