Freddie Gray knows being second-guessed and scrutinized comes with the job of Omaha Public School Board President. But when she came under fire over her handling of the Nancy Sebring scandal she got more than she bargained for, including allegations she’d violated the public trust and calls for her resignation or ouster.
Sebring is the former Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent OPS hired in the spring only to resign after sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover became public.
The controversy about what Gray did and didn’t do in response to the scandal culminated at an August 6 school board meeting where a special vote retained her 8 to 4.
A veteran but low profile public servant, Gray never found herself on the hot seat quite like this. Often overshadowed by her husband, Omaha City Councilman and former television journalist Ben Gray, she endured a public referendum on her character for trying to cover a very delicate personnel matter with only a hint of the facts, not to mention a seven month record as board president even her detractors don’t fault.
Gray was appointed to the board in February 2008 to replace Karen Shepard and ran unopposed that fall to retain the seat. She serves on local, state and national education initiative boards. Her school board peers named her president at the start of 2012. Amidst the recent storm that led to Gray facing removal, she refused to say she erred and balked at apologizing.
“Whatever the pleasure of the board was going to be that night it was something I needed to live with,” she says, “but I was not going to compromise my integrity and myself and say I was wrong when that’s not true.
“You can’t buy me that way. I did the right thing, I know I did the right thing.”
Gray asserts she and OPS board counsel Elizabeth Eynon-Korkda acted properly based on what they knew at the time about the nature of Sebring’s emails. Gray says she and Eynon-Korkda treated the matter as a personnel issue because Sebring was already a district employee when the emails surfaced as an issue.
“The personnel issue was the context of what was done and why it was done the way it was done,” says Gray, adding she “didn’t want to poison the well” and risk biasing the board should Sebring come before a termination hearing.
While Sebring’s emails show she informed the two of an upcoming story in the Des Moines Register, the substance focused on a story about a new charter school’s shortcomings, with the suggestion that “personal” emails caught up in that open records search wouldn’t be included. There was very little hinting at the salacious language, just a review of personal use of work emails. When the full extent of the sexually charged emails came to light, Sebring stepped aside.
Gray can live with the “differing views” critics voice but she describes as “troubling” and “disturbing” the anonymous, expletive-filled postal letters and phone messages she says she’s received at home.
“There are people who took advantage of the situation. They didn’t talk about what the issue was, it was just name calling, ugliness. I have grandchildren that were exposed to language totally inappropriate for them to hear.
“I just find those people to be real cowards. You know, if you’ve got something to say to me then man up or woman up and say it to me.”
The negativity was counterbalanced by expressions of support, including her mate’s presence at the July 30 and August 6 school board meetings.
“I have a fabulous husband. He was very supportive. My family of course, not just my children but my sisters, my nieces and nephews. The prayer chains people had going on. I had so many emails, phone messages, Facebook posts from people saying they had my back.”
She says her “trust and belief in a Supreme Being was never shaken” though “there was that question of why me and why now.”
Encouraging words too came, she says, from other school district leaders and from peers at the state and national levels. The morning that decided her school board presidency fate she spoke before an assembly of district principals who gave her a standing ovation upon her introduction.
“That blew my mind. I had no clue what to expect when I walked in that room. It was quite moving and a great way to start the day.”
She says perhaps the most hurtful thing in this episode was that her “very long line of public service,” including the Douglas County Board of Health, the African-American Achievement Council and years of mentoring, became obscured.
‘”In a very long history of being actively engaged with the community my detractors tried to define me by one thing. It was heartbreaking that people would do that. It was like everything else I had done in my life was valueless.”
She says she regrets the imbrogolio distracted from the “great progress the board’s been making” and to the “gains” the district’s made in graduation and truancy rates. Her overriding concern now, she says, is moving the district forward, something she expects to still be doing after this fall’s district elections. She’s running against fellow Democrat James M. English, a former OPS teacher and administrator .
Gray says no one can legitimately question her devotion to the district.
“My reason to be there is nothing more than pure academic success for all students . If you look at what I’ve done, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the messages I’ve carried through the community, statewide and nationally you’ll see I’m working very hard for the children of Nebraska and specifically for children in my district.”
Gray oversaw the board’s recent hiring of interim superintendent Virginia Moon and will oversee its search to find a permanent replacement for the retiring John Mackiel. Though she concedes repair needs to be made to a divided board, particularly among members who wanted her out, she says she foresees no problem getting the work of the district done.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.