Sexual harassment allegations against CEO plunge Omaha education agency into turmoil

Two members of a metro-area education board have resigned after their colleagues voted to keep an executive linked to sexual harassment allegations while he led a City of Omaha department. 

The decision to retain Gerald Kuhn as interim CEO of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties came at the end of a chaotic meeting that saw a divided board unable to carry out routine procedures. Audience members cheered in support of Kuhn, and at one point, his supporters on the board shouted down an agency executive.

One board member said the entire matter amounted to a “witch hunt” against Kuhn. Another who resigned after the meeting said she was “disappointed and ashamed” by the council’s inability to hold a civil discussion. 

Earlier this month, the Omaha City Council approved a $285,000 settlement with a former city employee who reported she had been sexually harassed and retaliated against after coming forward.

While the city officially denied the claims, its lead attorney said in a press release that Kuhn, the former city human rights and relations director, “had inappropriate contact with an employee.”

Kuhn stepped down from the city position in April 2023 after only a few months on the job. 

About six months later, he was hired as interim CEO of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, a governmental entity that provides early childhood and parental education to low-income families in 11 Omaha-area school districts. The Legislature created it in 2007 as a compromise to an annexation fight.

News of the harassment allegations against Kuhn blindsided the elected council members who oversee the Learning Community, they said, leading them to call a special meeting Friday evening. 

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When they showed up, they were hardly alone – about 20 Kuhn supporters packed the conference room. 

A procession of longtime friends and former colleagues spoke to Kuhn’s character, calling him “a stand-up guy,” “a strong Black male in our community” and “an amazing father.”

About 20 of Gerald Kuhn’s childhood friends and former colleagues showed up to a meeting of the Learning Community’s council on Friday, April 12. The meeting was called to discuss Kuhn’s employment after the City of Omaha disclosed that Kuhn allegedly “had inappropriate contact with an employee” when he worked for the city. Photo by Jeremy Turley/Flatwater Free Press

“I just really encourage you to not fall victim to this disruption that’s causing so much distraction to the mission and the work that Gerald has been doing so successfully,” Tim Clark, a North Omaha native and former TV host, told the council. 

When Kuhn got a chance to talk, he vehemently denied ever sexually harassing anyone, noting that no criminal charges emanated from his employment with the city. It would be unfair to make judgments against him based on unproven claims and a “false narrative” pushed by the news media, he said. 

“I am appalled by the allegations that stem from a disgruntled employee that was upset that she was terminated for lack of performance,” Kuhn said. “These allegations were made up against me, possibly for the opportunity of financial gain.” 

Kuhn asked that Council Chairwoman Angie Miller abstain from any vote to oust him “because she has expressed interest in the CEO position.” Miller, one of the two members who later resigned, rejected that notion in an interview, saying she’s very happy in her position as the director of a children’s literacy nonprofit. 

Further council discussion of Kuhn’s employment with the Learning Community was due to happen behind closed doors, but the interim CEO’s allies on the board shot down a motion to enter a private session in a rare move that allowed spectators to stay in the room.  

Several council members spoke in support of Kuhn, contending that there is no evidence of wrongdoing and that he has done a solid job at the helm. 

Councilwoman Tonya Ward called the effort to remove Kuhn “a witch hunt” and said she was “very disappointed” in the council for even holding a meeting on Friday. Kuhn’s friends in the audience applauded and cheered. 

Kuhn’s council allies loudly objected when Nayeli Lopez, the agency’s director of Elementary Learning Centers, tried to speak about Kuhn “on behalf of our staff,” repeatedly telling her “no.” Lopez sat silently the rest of the meeting and declined to comment when asked by the Flatwater Free Press. 

Councilman Mark Hoeger said the council ought to discuss and “take seriously the concerns that people have in the community” about the harassment allegations, noting that Friday’s meeting mostly featured only positive statements about Kuhn. 

Confusion followed as Ward and others made ambiguously worded motions to end the meeting and keep Kuhn in place indefinitely. 

After a half hour and a half dozen unsuccessful motions, the council voted 6-5 to adjourn the meeting, to retain Kuhn as interim and to begin the search for a permanent CEO. 

On Monday, council members Miller and Sally Otis submitted resignation letters.

In an email with the subject line “Disappointed,” Otis said she is ashamed that the council “could not have a civilized conversation” about Kuhn’s alleged past actions, adding that the board could be putting Learning Community employees and families “at undue risk through our inability to discuss issues and solutions.”

“As elected members, we are called on to understand complex issues and factors in order to better serve our constituents,” Otis wrote. “I don’t see how any of us can do that when we’re preventing a closed session with the primary purpose of protecting and upholding the integrity of those involved and those affected.”

Learning Community Council Chairwoman Angie Miller sits in a meeting on Friday, April 12. Miller resigned days after the meeting. Photo by Jeremy Turley/Flatwater Free Press

Miller, the board chair, wrote just one sentence in her email: “Please accept this email as my resignation from the Learning Community Coordinating Council effective immediately.”

The council will elect replacements for Otis and Miller in the coming months. 

In a follow-up interview, Kuhn wished the departing council members well and said he hopes to apply to stay on as the agency’s permanent CEO. 

An attorney for the former city employee who alleged Kuhn sexually harassed her did not respond to a request for comment. 

Climbing the ladder

Kuhn’s journey to the top job at the Learning Community barely took a year. 

The Omaha native ran for a spot on the Learning Community’s council in 2022, but he finished third in a four-way primary race. Only the top two candidates would claim a seat in the general election, but Kuhn caught a break. 

Nonprofit executive Brenda Banks was indicted on wire fraud charges a week after winning the primary with more than double the vote total of her nearest competitor. She dropped out of the race, and Kuhn took second in the November election to earn a place on the council. 

The same week Kuhn joined the council, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert appointed him as director of the city’s Human Rights and Relations Department. 

Kuhn missed three learning community board meetings in a row from March to May 2023, according to the board’s minutes. 

Stothert placed Kuhn on administrative leave from his day job for undisclosed reasons on April 7, and Kuhn resigned from the position days later, the Omaha World-Herald reported. Kuhn told the newspaper that his resignation was a “personal decision.”

In August, former Learning Community CEO Bradley Ekwerekwu announced his departure for a new job. The council needed to quickly find a caretaker to assume the position on an interim basis.

The council initially looked at retired school administrators for the position but didn’t get any takers, Hoeger said. The next logical pool of prospects was the council itself, and Kuhn emerged as the most willing and able candidate, Hoeger noted. 

Kuhn told the council at the time that he left his previous job under his own volition. The city provided no information to contradict Kuhn’s explanation, Hoeger said. 

In November, the council unanimously approved an interim CEO contract for Kuhn and accepted his resignation from the board. 

Kuhn quickly grew to enjoy the job, and the council received positive feedback from school superintendents and staff about his leadership, Hoeger said. 

Council members recently began floating the idea of making Kuhn’s role permanent, but then, they said, the city’s settlement dropped without warning. 

The tumultuous Friday meeting demonstrated the diversity of opinions about how the Learning Community should react to the allegations against Kuhn, Hoeger said. 

Hoeger believes allegations of sexual harassment should be taken seriously, but he said that the council doesn’t have enough information about them from the city.

Keeping Kuhn in place leaves the Learning Community open to criticism that could be weaponized by people who think the agency shouldn’t even exist, Hoeger said. 

But if the council fires Kuhn, his backers in the education sphere and the broader public would question why the agency got rid of an effective leader. 

“That is the rock and the hard place that we’re in the middle of right now,” Hoeger said.

By Jeremy Turley

Jeremy Turley covers the Omaha metro area. He worked at newspapers across the Midwest before moving to Nebraska. Most recently, he shivered through several frigid winters in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he covered state government and the COVID-19 pandemic for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and a native of suburban Chicago. His hobbies include disc golfing, collecting campaign buttons and using too many em dashes — or so his editors say.

1 Comment

The situation sounds untenable. Public policy regarding public education cannot be made in the environment described in this article.



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