A lesson in scandal

Posted by Jenna Gallagher on June 14, 2012 |

It was a story that could have made great “ripped from the headlines” fodder for a prime-time drama. A promising superintendent from one city is hired away by another city, only to lose both jobs for a violation involving salacious emails sent from work computers. Not quite Law & Order stuff, but maybe one of Shonda Rhimes’s shows. In fact, maybe even her new one, aptly titled Scandal.

Except, it really wasn’t. And mainly because OPS didn’t want to make it so. On Friday, June 1, when both the Des Moines Register and the Omaha World-Herald broke the real story behind Dr. Nancy Sebring’s earlier-than-planned resignation from Des Moines Public Schools, Omaha Public Schools Board President Freddie Gray said that there was no playbook for handling a situation like this.

But if there were, the OPS school board would have written it.

When questioned in the immediate aftermath of the revelations, the members of the board did not take the bait and discuss the explicit nature of the emails, despite the fact that they had been printed in both papers for everyone to see. Instead, they took a unified stance: we don’t have all the facts yet. We are not going to speculate. We are going to let our processes work and decide as a complete body.

Then, they had an emergency session and made the decision to accept Dr. Sebring’s resignation.

While the temptation for most hiring boards faced with this situation might have been to react immediately, with individual members talking to the press without a plan – an error in judgment that usually results in potentially damaging speculation or that phrase that always feels like obfuscation, “no comment,” OPS clearly followed a crisis control strategy.

They did not hint at a decision to the press before it was made. They were adamant from the start that their discussions and final verdict would come down to boring old policy about sending emails from work computers – not the racy, soapy content of those emails, which makes a much better story.

It turned what could have been a media three-ring circus into an open and shut case. Dr. Sebring is free to try to pick up the pieces of her shattered career and OPS can go back to doing their job.

You can’t always prevent a crisis, but you know you’ve successfully managed it when the epilogue is: business as usual.

 

 

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