Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission
By definition, news happens without warning, which can make it tough for media periodicals that only come out once a month or once week. I recently wrote a dual profile of an Omaha power couple – Omaha School Board President Freddie Gray and Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray – for the August issue of the New Horizons, a monthly newspaper I regularly contribute to. That issue was put to bed when all hell broke loose concerning Freddie’s handling of the already controversial Nancy Sebring incident that saw Sebring resign shortly after being hired as Omaha Public Schools superintendent when sexually charged emails she exchanged with her lover came to light. Newspaper reports revealed that Gray and school board counsel didn’t share some information they had about the emails with the rest of the board. Gray suddenly found herself the target of allegations that she’d breached the public trust and some even called for her to resign or to be removed. Her side of the story is that she didn’t know the full extent of Sebring’s communications and, besides, this was a personnel issue that there’s a whole set of protocols for handling. Also, Gray didn’t want to prejudice the board should they have had to convene a termination hearing over Sebring’s employment. Sebring’s resignation saved herself and the district futther embarassment. The timing of this brouhaha meant there was no chance to update or revise my story. So be it. But I did get the opportunity to do a new interview with Freddie after she was retained by the board in a special vote. The result is this story for The Reader that tries to lay out what it was like for her to be on the receiving end of vitriol and rancor. Through it all, she kept her composure and never engaged in the kind of name calling and reputation bashing that others subjected her to. You can find my earlier, dual profile on Freddie and Ben Gray on this blog, under the title Gray Matters or in the Omaha Public Schools or Education categories.
Freddie Gray Stands Fast on Her Handling of Sebring Scandal, OPS School Board President Survives Vote to Continue Her Mission
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
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 removal.
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 by an 8 to 4 count.
Until the blow up Gray slipped under the radar as a veteran but low profile public servant. She certainly 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 despite 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 Omaha school board peers thought enough of her to name 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 and therefore outside the board’s purview 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
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. my extended family in Cleveland. 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 foresees no problem getting the work of the district done.
- Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha school board votes to retain president (sfgate.com)
Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo Displays a Talent for Teaching and Connecting
You don’t think of a master teacher as someone in her 30s but that’s exactly what Luisa Palomo of Omaha is. The kindergarten instructor at Liberty Elementary School has mastered the art and craft that is teaching and she is deservedly being recognized for it. The following two stories I did on her, in 2010 and 2012, appeared in El Percio newspaper shortly after she earned major education prizes in those respective years. The school she teaches at, Liberty Elementary, is one I am quite fond of. You’ll find several more articles by me about Liberty on this blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Maldonado Palomo has reached the top of her field as a 2010 Alice Buffet Outstanding Teacher Award-winner.
The Gering, Neb. native is the grade leader at her Omaha school. She heads outreach efforts to parents, many of them undocumented, through the Liberty Community Council. She’s a liaison with partners assisting Liberty kids and families. The school engages community through parenting and computer classes, food and clothes pantries, and, starting in the fall, a health clinic.
Colleagues admire her dedication working with the school’s many constituents.
“She truly reaches the whole child – behaviorally, academically, socially, emotionally — and then steps beyond that and reaches the family too,” said Liberty Principal Carri Hutcherson. “We can count on her to do a lot of the family components we have at Liberty because she gets it, she has a heart for it, the passion, the drive, the focus, all those great things it takes. She’s an expert practitioner on so many levels.”
But there was a time when Palomo questioned whether she wanted to be a classroom teacher. While a Creighton University education major she participated in Encuentro Dominicano, a semester-long study abroad in the impoverished Dominican Republic. She described this immersion as a “huge, life-changing experience” for reawakening a call to service inherited from her father, Matt Palomo.
“My dad has spent his whole life doing for others,” she said. “He comes from a migrant worker family. He gave up a college scholarship to work so he could help support his nine brothers and sisters. From the age of 15 he’s been involved with the Boy Scouts as a scout leader. He just celebrated his 45th year with the Boy Scouts of America.
“He’s always worked with underprivileged youth, Hispanic or Caucasian, in our small town. He’s such a role model for so many young boys who’ve gone through that program. He has such a sense of what’s right and wrong and he’s instilled that in my brother and sister and I.”
In the Dominican Republic Luisa felt connected to people, their lives and their needs.
“You work, take classes and live with families,” she said. “You learn the philosophy and the why of what’s going on. You really learn to form relationships with people, which isn’t something that always comes naturally to Americans. Here, it’s always more individualistic and what do I need to do for myself, whereas in a lot of other countries people think about what do I need to do for my community and my family.”
The communal culture was akin to what she knew back in Gering. When she returned to the States she sought to replicate the bonds she’d forged. “I came back wanting that,” she said. Unable to find it in her first teaching practicums, she became disillusioned.
“I was ready to quit education and my advisor was like, ‘Nope, there’s this new school in a warehouse and Nancy Oberst is the principal and you’ll meet her and love her, give it a shot before you quit.’ So I went there and loved it and stayed there. Nancy and I just clicked and she hired me to teach kindergarten.”
Liberty opened in 2002 in a former bus warehouse at 20th and Leavenworth. In 2004 it moved into a newly constructed building at 2021 St. Mary’s Avenue. Oberst was someone Palomo aspired to be like.
“She’s so dynamic and such a good model,” said Palomo. “She has such a vision for how a school should be — it shouldn’t be an 8:30 to 4 o’clock building. Instead it should be a community space where it’s open all the time and families come for all kinds of different services, and that really is the center of the community.”
Oberst and many of Liberty’s original teachers have moved on. Palomo’s stayed. “We have a core group of parents who have been with us from the old building and they know I’m one of the few teachers who have been here all eight years,” she said. “They’ve seen what I do. They know Miss Palomo is the one who spent the night in the ER when Jose broke his arm and started a fund raiser when Emiliano’s house burned down. They know me and they trust me and they let me into their homes.
“They know I’m coming from a good place.”
She said one Liberty family’s “adopted” her and her fiance. The family’s four children will be in the couple’s fall wedding.
Hutcherson said Liberty is “the hub” for its downtown neighborhood and educators like Palomo empower parents “to feel they’re not just visitors but participants.” Whether helping a family get their home’s utilities turned back on or translating for them, she said Palomo and other staff “step out of the walls of this building to get it done.” For two-plus years Palomo mentored a girl separated from her parents.
“It’s that whole reaching out and meeting our families where they’re at,” said Palomo.
Liberty’s holistic, family-centered, “do what’s best for the child” approach is just what she was looking for and now she can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I really love it here. We’re not just a teacher in the classroom. We do so much to really bring our community into our school so our families can come to us for all these different activities and for help with different needs. It’s one of those things where we let them into our lives and they let us into theirs, and we’re both better for it.”
She’s proud to be “a strong Hispanic” for kids who may not know another college graduate that looks like them.
Palomo recently earned her master’s in educational administration from UNO. Sooner or later, she’ll be a principal. Hutcherson said when that day comes “it’ll be a great loss to Liberty but a great gain for the district.”
_ _ _
Liberty’s Luisa Palomo Named Nebraska Teacher of the Year
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
In only two years Liberty Elementary School kindergarten instructor Luisa Palomo, 30, has won Nebraska’s top teacher recognition honors. In 2010 she was named an Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher, an award given top Omaha Public Schools educators, and last November she was selected Nebraska Teacher of the Year.
The Gering, Neb. native applied for the state honor at the prodding of OPS colleagues. She completed the required essays and interviews but held out little hope of winning.
“I felt there’s no way they’re going to choose me because to be quite honest I am young and I’ve only taught for a short amount of time compared to a lot of other teachers of the year. And while I’m passionate about early childhood education I know it’s not on the forefront of everybody’s brain when they think about education.”
She was motivated to put her name in the running because the winner gains a stage and she wanted a platform on education.
“By getting this award you get so much more of an audience,” she says. “By having this title behind my name now finally people will listen to me. I kind of applied for the award thinking this – that I would have a title that would give me a foot in the door.”
As expected, she’s in high demand as a speaker and she says she’s eager to present on “topics I feel really passionate about.”
“What I want the media and the public to know is that there’s so many good things happening in education. The media’s focus on bad news stories is really not an accurate reflection of what’s happening in schools, so I kind of want to put that message out there.
“What I’ll be talking to teachers about is a shift in how we run our schools. Instead of it having to be a traditional 9-to-3, nine months out of the year model, we really need to shift that mentality to what is best for kids. For some kids the traditional school year works beautifully, but for other kids, like the ones I work with in my downtown school, it’s so much more beneficial to them to have an extended day where they’re able to come in early and stay late and have educational opportunities, and to attend summer school through the first week of July.”
She advocates that schools adjust to meet students where they are.
“There doesn’t need to be a one size fits all model for education. Instead it’s what works for the kids you’re serving. It may mean doing what Liberty does, which is coordinate with all these community services to offer Our Completely Kids program. It opens our building at 7 in the morning and closes it at 6 at night.
“Liberty employs this full service community school model where it says if families trust the school, bring in the services. Why send families across town? Why not have a doctor in your school? Liberty allows any of us as teachers to accompany our families through so much of their lives, and we’re better for it and our families are better for it and the children are better for it. Our kids are better adjusted and they’re more connected to school.
“There’s so many different ways to meet the needs of our kids, we just have to be open to accepting it.”
She bristles at the notion a teacher’s duties stop when the last school bell rings.
“I hear some teachers say, ‘But my job is not to be a social worker,’ but really it is because your job is to look out for what’s best for children.”
For Palomo, teaching is about making lives better.
“All kids have a path and the teachers they have in the classroom determine where that path is. There’s so much literature that talks about the effectiveness of quality teachers. If I’m able to reach these kids and get them to love learning I’m changing the outcome of their path. To be a transformational leader is understanding your job is so much more than teaching phonics or number recognition.”
She approaches the school day as a “very purposeful” adventure in which she “guides and encourages” the learning process. “I never talk at our children but with our children and kind of explore with our kids as they learn. It’s a balance of what’s developmentally appropriate and what’s engaging for our kids.”
During 2012 she’ll be meeting fellow teachers of the year at national education events. The first was in Dallas, Texas in late Jan. Upcoming events are in Washington D.C., Huntsville, Ala. and New York-New Jersey. She says she enjoys the prospect of making “connections with people all around the country that I’ll be able call on when I have questions or when I need support.”
She’s already getting to know past Nebraska Teachers of the Year, who work as a cohort on education initiatives. “It’s expected as a teacher of the year you’re continually giving back to the education community,” she says. That’s fine with Palomo since she sees her calling as a service mission. The recognition only confirms that. “This award really makes me think that not only did I choose the right career but I must be doing things right.” She also sees it as validation that quality education happens in inner city schools.
She intends on being an administrator one day but for now is content where she is.
“I want to be in the classroom for a chunk of my career before I move on. I feel like I learn so much every year by being in the foxholes. I work with parents, students, teachers on a daily basis, and it’s very real. I’m not tied up in administrative duties or policy, I’m working with who I want to have the most effect on.”
- Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: The Evolution of a School (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Awards (omaha.com)
- Teachers from Iowa, Neb., to be celebrated in DC (thegazette.com)