In early May, Nancy Sebring, the superintendent of the Des Moines public school system, abruptly resigned; her resignation was accepted by the school board in a closed meeting.

The resignation was unusual, not just for its suddenness—Sebring was scheduled to introduce Iowa governor Terry Branstad at a time capsule unveiling ceremony the next morning—or its secrecy—the school board president told that press that private meetings were allowed by Iowa code to “prevent needless and irreparable injury to an individual’s reputation. But it was also strange for its timing: Sebring, who had presided over the Des Moines schools for six years, was scheduled to leave her job June 30 to become Omaha’s superintendent of schools. Sebring and the school board told the press that her early departure was due to family responsibilities that she needed to tend to before her move.

In reaction to the May 10 Des Moines Register story that reported Sebring’s resignation one reader commented: “Something doesn’t smell right about all of this.”

The Register’s story implied as much, and the paper, hot on the trail of this fishiness, filed a public records request for emails Sebring sent and received between February 1 and May 10 containing the words “Omaha” and “charter school.” (Six days later, the paper added the terms “Nina Rasmusson” and “Jennifer Kreashko.”) Nina Rasmusson is the name of Sebring’s twin sister, who was hired in 2010, amid controversy, to direct a new Des Moines Charter School, and whose boyfriend was hired in 2011, again amid controversy, to be principal of a Des Moines high school. Jennifer Kreashko is the name of a close family friend who was also hired for a position at the charter school.

Yet, while the Register’s inquiry was guided by somewhat routine suspicions surrounding a charter school, the results of their records request took them in a very different direction. In the end the inquiry would raise journalistic questions for two newsrooms, questions about how far is too far in exposing private behavior in public.

Among the 600 emails obtained by the Register in their records request were “at least 40” exchanged in a six-week period between Sebring and her recently acquired lover. (Both Sebring and her lover were married, though for all of her years in Iowa, Sebring lived at a state’s distance from her husband in Colorado.) A quarter of those emails were “sexually explicit”—mostly in that they contained ecstatic references to the new couple’s sex life. There was also a photo. At least as common as references to her sex life in these emails, were earnest comments about her work life and the Des Moines school district, about which she genuinely seems to care:

I really love our students and our schools and will miss it here. I don’t think I’ve been in any other job where I had such a tremendous opportunity to impact students and families and it feels good. Our kids appreciate everything they get and it makes you want to do more for them.

Some of these emails had been sent during the school day; others had been sent at night, on weekends, or while Sebring was on vacation. Because these emails were sent using a district email account and district equipment, Sebring was in violation of the district’s technology policy, and it’s for this reason that on May 10 she abruptly resigned.

On the night of June 1, the Register broke its story: “School district: Sexually explicit emails led to Nancy Sebring’s resignation.” On the morning of June 2, the Register published a sample of these emails.

Meanwhile, the Omaha World-Herald was not far behind with its own story, its own selection of ‘racy’ emails, and the page-one
assessment that Sebring had “proved a weakling against her own passions.” Sebring submitted her resignation to the Omaha school board not long after.

The Register did some good journalism to uncover this truth, and both the Register and the World-Herald are emphatic that their coverage of the Sebring case was thoughtful and deliberate, never a witch hunt into Nancy Sebring’s sex life—watchdog journalism, not voyeuristic journalism. And yet, now that the mildly titillating content of the 57-year old educator’s emails have turned up in all the predictable places and then some, it feels like a little bit of both. How did this happen?

“That Weird Resignation”

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.