OPS hiring marked by scandal, embarrassment

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June 5th, 2012

Omaha, NE – It’s been a bumpy road for the Omaha Public School District over the past couple of months. Since Superintendent John Mackiel announced his retirement last August, the school district has been searching for a qualified candidate to fill the position he has held for over 40 years. That effort unraveled this week.

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“If we could all just take a deep breath… We’re ok… We’re ok.”

Willie Barney, President of the Empowerment Network, addressed the OPS Board at a public meeting Monday, and called for calm. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

In a night somewhat fraught with tension and uncertainty, Empowerment Network President Willie Barney’s remark was met with a degree of appreciation by members of the Omaha Public Schools Board at a hastily-called public meeting Monday night.

“Now we need to have an interim plan, and now we need to continue together and collaborate like we have been doing,” Barney said.

After several days of surprise, scandal and embarrassment, OPS Board President Freddie Gray was eager to put the controversy to rest.

“I know there have been comments,” Gray said. “I know there have been back-and-forths. I know there has been misinformation. I know there have been character assassinations through this entire process.”

The Omaha Public Schools Board of Education called an emergency meeting Monday night to discuss the next step in the search for a new superintendent. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Addressing fellow members of the board and concerned citizens alike at the Teachers Administration Center building in downtown Omaha, Gray stressed she and other board members are doing everything in their power to make the daunting process of finding a new superintendent an expedient, yet thorough one.

“We are very much aware of the urgency,” she said. “This board will have a full discussion on the entire matter that we have to take up, and we will do what we need to do as we did last time.”

“We had a fair and open process, and our process will stay the same.”

But “last time” ultimately produced dire results. The board thought they had found a prize prospect in then- Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Sebring. The members voted 11-0 to offer Sebring the position in April of this year.

A crowd gathered at the public meeting to voice concerns over the hiring process that failed to adequately vet Nancy Sebring. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Following her acceptance, the Omaha World-Herald filed a request for Sebring’s emails from her public school account on May 7th. The same day of the requests, Des Moines district staff said they discovered sexually explicit emails sent by Sebring to a male lover via her Des Moines Public Schools email account. Two days later, Sebring was confronted by district officials.

Sebring, who is married, resigned from her position in Des Moines the following day. At the time, she cited the need to prepare for her new position in Omaha as a predominant reason for making the decision.
Although Des Moines public schools initially kept the scandal quiet, the emails were made public on June 2nd. It was then that Sebring offered her resignation to a shocked Omaha school board.

Nancy Sebring submitted her resignation to OPS before she had stepped in to the position. (Courtesy photo)

Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, said he thinks Sebring still has the ability to be a leader. “But obviously, in light of recent events, her ability to come in to a new situation and be trusted by the community… For people to look at her as pillar is highly compromised,” Proulx said.

Sebring was slated to start her new position on July 1st, but last Saturday the OPS Board voted to accept Sebring’s resignation and resume a hiring search.

OPS had originally turned to consulting firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, paying the group upwards of $41,000 to conduct the search and vet possible candidates. Since Sebring’s ousting, the group has come under fire for ignoring separate allegations against her. According to Nebraska Watchdog, those ranged from charges of nepotism to one critic’s complaint that while in charge of Des Moines’ public schools Sebring “opted for gimmicks as opposed to addressing serious problems.”

Proulx said the OPS Board would be better served seeking a different consulting firm to assist in the hiring process.

ReNae Kehrberg was a popular choice among Omaha citizens and OPS teachers at the meeting to fill the superintendent position (Courtesy photo)

“I didn’t feel like this firm did a really good job of bringing a really deep pool of people to choose from,” he said. “To expend that amount of money again to make sure we have the best possible candidate for the job to take us into the 2013-14 school year would be a very good use of money.”

But not everyone is excited about the possibility of repeating history. Back at the TAC building board meeting, a collection of OPS teachers and Omaha citizens were quick to point to another alternative: dipping back into the pool of the last search’s final candidates. And almost every person who addressed the board resoundingly pointed to the same individual: ReNae Kehrberg, OPS assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Kehrberg has also worked as an employee of the district for over 30 years.

By the end of the evening, as the crowd slowly dispersed, an overall sense of cautious optimism seemed to follow. Freddie Gray said the group would hold a private executive meeting to discuss the public’s concerns and determine the next step in moving forward.

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