ACLU of Iowa and Former School Board Member File Lawsuit To Access Records from Closed Sebring Meeting

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
September 24, 2012 1:52 pm

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ACLU of Iowa
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Des Moines, Iowa — The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Graham Gillette, a former member of the Des Moines Public School Board, to enforce an open records request for materials from a closed session of the school board. At the meeting, which was held May 10, board members discussed the sudden departure of former superintendent Nancy Sebring.

It was at that meeting that the board discussed the pending public revelation of a number of sexually explicit emails written by Sebring using district email. Sebring had already announced her resignation in April to take a superintendent job in Omaha, and her last day in Des Moines was to be June 30.

On May 9, unknown to the public, Sebring sent an email to the school board announcing
that she would leave her position early.

On May 10, the board went into a closed session under a provision of Iowa law that permits it to “evaluate the professional competency of an individual.” However, after the meeting, board president Teree Caldwell-Johnson stated in the local media that neither Sebring’s performance nor her potential discharge had been discussed after the closed session. Caldwell-Johnson said the meeting had been closed following Sebring’s request. Iowa law also permits a closed meeting “to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation and that individual requests a closed session.”

However, in public comments after the May 10 meeting, Caldwell-Johnson stated that Sebring’s qualifications were not called into question at the meeting and added that she didn’t know if it “would have caused anyone any harm.”

“The Des Moines school board members appear to have gone into closed meeting not to discuss the qualifications of employees, as is permitted by law, but to strategize on how to handle themselves politically in the wake of an uncomfortable situation,” said Gillette.

The district has repeatedly refused Gillette’s previous requests for meeting materials. Gillette said he filed the formal open records request because of an overriding public interest and to keep government agencies accountable to the public. “My decision to take this action comes after careful consideration. I do not want to unnecessarily burden the court or the school district. However, government functions at its best when it conducts its activities in the open. The court is the only appropriate entity capable of deciding whether there has been a violation of a law written to ensure politics does not sideline the public’s interest.”

ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Randall Wilson said the ACLU wants this case to go before a judge to determine if the school board abused open meetings 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,” he said.

The ACLU and Gillette are not requesting the portion of the 80-minute meeting during which the board may have discussed the appointment of Acting Superintendent Thomas Ahart.

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