Two top officials of the Omaha Public Schools knew that Nancy Sebring sent personal emails to a lover on a Des Moines Public Schools computer weeks before newspapers reported it.
They kept it secret even from other board members and hoped it wouldn't go public, while planning how to respond if news stories were published about the emails, with the goal of keeping Sebring as superintendent.
Sebring notified OPS board attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda the day after abruptly resigning as Des Moines' superintendent over the emails.
Sebring told Eynon-Kokrda that the emails violated a Des Moines policy prohibiting personal use of school computers.
Over the next three weeks, Sebring gradually provided more detail about the emails to Eynon-Kokrda and Board President Freddie Gray, updating them by email, by phone and in meetings about her efforts to prevent publication of the emails.
Sebring hoped the sexually explicit emails would not be disclosed, avoiding damage to her 35-year education career and to the career of her lover, a married, decorated Army captain.
But she cautioned OPS officials to plan for “the worst-case scenario.”
These revelations are contained in a new batch of emails Sebring released last week to The World-Herald.
The emails contradict comments Gray made after news stories on the emails broke that she had heard only “rumors” and “innuendo” about the emails and Gray's flat denial that Sebring had ever told her or Eynon-Kokrda about them.
Sebring released more than a dozen messages, exchanged between her and Eynon-Kokrda prior to the story breaking, that were preserved on Sebring's phone.
Sebring told The World-Herald she wants them made public to show the Omaha community she was honest with OPS officials about why she abruptly resigned from the Des Moines job May 9, seven weeks before her contract with that district was to expire.
“While I understand that they felt it was best not to share the information with other board members and the community, and appreciated the confidentiality, I did not ask them to do so,” Sebring said by email Tuesday. “It came as no surprise to district leadership when the story was made public on June 1.”
However, Gray and Eynon-Kokrda, a Baird Holm lawyer who works for the district on contract, said in an interview Monday that Sebring withheld details from them and minimized the seriousness of what she had done in Des Moines.
They said she never fully disclosed to them how graphic the emails were and how many there were — a World-Herald public records request turned up about a dozen between Sebring and her lover. Gray and Eynon-Kokrda said Sebring initially told them only that the emails revealed she had an affair that would be embarrassing if it went public. Sebring is married but has been estranged from her husband.
Even when Sebring described the emails as “fairly explicit,” a week before they went public, the two OPS officials said they did not fathom what the messages contained. They said they didn't know the true nature of the emails until newspapers broke the story.
What Sebring was telling them never alarmed them enough to cause them to launch their own investigation into the emails or alert other board members, they said.
Gray and Eynon-Kokrda acknowledged that they took no additional steps to look into the matter or to inform anyone else. They did not contact the Des Moines Public Schools, attempt to obtain the emails Sebring told them about or question Sebring further about the content.
In fact, Gray would say after the emails were made public that their content wasn't the problem.
“For the board, this is about policy violation. It's not about the content,” she told The World-Herald after Sebring resigned. “These are things we tell our staff all the time not to do. It's a big violation to use company equipment and emails.”
Eynon-Kokrda, asked Monday about how the matter was handled, said: “Hindsight is 20/20. We honestly didn't see that this was anything close to what it was. We believed what we were being told.”
She and Gray said they felt obliged not to disclose what Sebring confided.
“We had an individual who ... we thought was being very open and honest with us about something that was a very personal issue, a very painful issue for the individual,” Gray told The World-Herald. “We believed that we had a contracted employee who was reaching out and was telling us the truth.”
In a May 24 email to Sebring, Eynon-Kokrda wrote that she did not share Sebring's emails with board members: “I do not forward your emails because I want them arguably protected and/or not known to exist, per se, but I do advise Freddie of our contacts so she is current.”
In that same email, the lawyer wrote that Gray was the only OPS board member who knew of the Des Moines Register's public records request, through which that newspaper eventually obtained the personal emails.
To learn if OPS officials knew of the racy emails before they went public, The World-Herald filed a public records request last month.
The newspaper asked for all communication, including emails, sent or received by OPS board members or Eynon-Kokrda regarding Sebring between May 7, 2012, and June 14, 2012.
In response, the district provided dozens of emails, but the messages released by Sebring last week were not among them.
Eynon-Kokrda said Nebraska's public records law requires providing only emails in possession or belonging to the district and does not extend to messages on her law firm's email account.
The emails Sebring released last week cast new light on the events that played out in May and June, after school board members in Nebraska's largest district voted 11-0 to select Sebring to replace retiring Superintendent John Mackiel.
Sebring, 57, had been the Des Moines superintendent since 2006. OPS officials were impressed by her record of raising academic achievement and setting high expectations in that urban district which, like OPS, had seen rising numbers of poor and minority students.
She also came from outside OPS, which some Omahans thought could give the district a fresh start.
Sebring entered into a contract April 25 to become the next OPS superintendent beginning July 1. She planned to continue working in Des Moines through June 30.
When she resigned abruptly from Des Moines in early May, Sebring said publicly that it was because she needed extra time to take care of personal matters, such as moving to Omaha and preparing for her daughter's summer wedding.
The newly released emails show that after resigning from Des Moines, Sebring kept in regular contact with Eynon-Kokrda, who relayed information about those contacts to Gray as all three anxiously waited to see what the Des Moines Register would do with the volatile emails the newspaper had requested from the Des Moines district through a public records request.
The emails Sebring made public last week were sent between May 18 and June 1, the day The World-Herald and the Des Moines Register broke their stories online.
The emails show that Eynon-Kokrda and Gray remained committed to making Sebring the next OPS superintendent if she could survive the uproar of the emails going public or if the emails never went public.
The three of them planned how they would respond publicly should news organizations discover that the emails were the actual cause of her resignation from the Des Moines job and publish stories about them.
“I am optimistic that it will all go away,” Sebring wrote to Eynon-Kokrda a week before the stories broke, “but realistic in the sense that it is always good to plan for the worst-case scenario.”
“I don't want anyone on the OPS board to be surprised by this situation in Des Moines,” she wrote.
Although a World-Herald records request this spring triggered the events that led to the public release of the racy emails, the Des Moines Register obtained them before The World-Herald. Sebring had persuaded a World-Herald reporter to narrow his request, which effectively screened out the explicit emails, the existence of which was not known at the time.
The new batch of emails shows Sebring gradually releasing more detail to Omaha officials about the Des Moines emails.
In a May 10 email to a friend, whose name she redacted from the copy provided to The World-Herald, she wrote: “I talked with the Omaha school attorney and she was incredibly supportive. She thinks this is ridiculous.”
In a May 18 email to Eynon-Kokrda, Sebring wrote of “six problematic emails” among those requested by the Register and wrote that she intended to talk with the Register reporter and “let her know that there are six emails that are personal in nature that I would prefer not be made public.”
In a May 24 email to Eynon-Kokrda, Sebring wrote that four of the Des Moines emails were “highly personal and contain fairly explicit content (somewhere along the lines of what most seventeen year olds are reading in Cosmo),” referring to the women's magazine Cosmopolitan.
In the same email, Sebring offered to resign from the OPS job, telling Eynon-Kokrda: “I would rather bow out gracefully before starting my job in OPS, than be caught up in a scandal after I begin the job.”
She asked Eynon-Kokrda whether OPS would fire an employee who had done what she did.
Eynon-Kokrda wrote back that she would not recommend that Sebring submit an immediate offer of resignation, saying that “seems extreme” and “my thought is you have a pretty sympathetic situation.”
Eynon-Kokrda wrote that she knew of no OPS employee ever terminated solely for personal use of email, saying that OPS informs employees that emails are not confidential and that individuals must “use good judgment” but that sending personal emails has never by itself demonstrated sufficient poor judgment as to result in termination.
“The closest I've ever seen is where a principal involved with a subordinate at his school had about 50 texts and emails per day during school hours, over months and months (thousands of emails and texts on school phone) some of which proved he had inappropriately approved sick leave so she could join him on business trips,” Eynon-Kokrda wrote.
She wrote that if the situation “starts to really go south,” she would recommend meeting with the OPS board “to explain and provide them with the opportunity to circle the wagons.”
On May 31, Sebring emailed Eynon-Kokrda to say a Des Moines reporter had called wanting an interview about the sexually explicit emails as well as about a controversial Des Moines charter school.
Sebring wrote: “I wanted to let you and Freddie know that the other shoe dropped today. I got a call from a register reporter wanting to interview me about the charter school and ‘sexually explicit' emails. I will not be meeting with her at the advice of my attorney. They plan to run a story on Sunday.”
Eynon-Kokrda replied that the worst that could happen would be the paper publishing a story saying Sebring used school email for “several personal sexually explicit exchanges.”
“But the worst anyone can accuse you of is bad judgment,” Eynon-Kokrda said.
The lawyer wrote that Sebring and Gray should respond as they had previously planned.
She wrote that Sebring would respond either by saying nothing or by saying that everyone has a private life and that her personal life “has no association with your job performance or the educational opportunities offered to students.”
“Freddie will be in about the same place,” Eynon-Kokrda wrote. “If asked for comment, she will say it isn't appropriate for her to discuss your personal life.”
If pressed, Eynon-Kokrda wrote, Gray would say that while people shouldn't use work email for personal purposes that interfere with job performance, “she is unaware of any allegation that you have anything but a stellar job performance record, and your personal emails and private life don't change that.”
On June 1 at 8:11 p.m., Sebring emailed asking Eynon-Kokrda to call her as soon as possible.
“The register is breaking the story online tonight,” she wrote. “Emails will be available tomorrow. Please tell Freddie I will resign if need be. This will be ugly.”
Eynon-Kokrda wrote back at 9:56 p.m. notifying her that The World-Herald had published its story.
“I have shared your message with Freddie, including your willingness to resign, and I believe the Board will discuss the whole matter Monday night at their regular board meeting.”
The new emails contradict statements Gray made after both newspapers published their initial stories about the explicit emails June 1.
Interviewed Friday night, June 1, Gray said she had heard only “rumors and innuendo” about why Sebring resigned. During that interview, she said she had not discussed with Des Moines district officials the circumstances of Sebring's resignation and did not know what was contained in the emails.
“I haven't seen them,” she said then, “so I have no clue what they are, what they're not.”
In a later interview, a World-Herald reporter asked Gray whether Sebring had been in contact with her or Eynon-Kokrda about the personal emails prior to them going public.
“No, why would she be?” Gray had said.
As anticipated, the stories left the public in an uproar. Gray called an emergency meeting Saturday afternoon, June 2, and the board accepted Sebring's resignation.
Gray and Eynon-Kokrda told The World-Herald this week that they would have acted differently had they known the actual contents of the emails.
“She never characterized these as graphic, pornographic or in any way sexually embarrassing,” Eynon-Kokrda said. “She portrayed them as not salacious, as chatty, and as emails that would reveal that she had an affair.”
When Sebring wrote to Eynon-Kokrda May 24 describing the explicit emails as something a 17-year-old girl might read in Cosmo, that still didn't cause alarm, Gray and Eynon-Kokrda said this week, because they didn't perceive Cosmo as a raunchy magazine.
Sebring told The World-Herald Tuesday that she “made a serious mistake, for which the cost has been incredibly high.”
She said she is sorry for the “disruption and difficulty” she caused for the staff and students of OPS as well as the citizens of Omaha.
“I accept full responsibility for my actions, and I am hopeful that the Omaha community will accept my sincere apology,” she said.
World-Herald staff writer Jeffrey Robb contributed to this report.
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