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LPS headquarters fire

Firefighters battle a blaze at the Lincoln Public Schools district office building, 5901 O St., on May 30, 2011, on the west side and southwest corner of the building.

A district employee set fire to her supervisor's desk, causing the blaze that destroyed the Lincoln Public Schools' headquarters in May, investigators said.

The surprising news came Monday afternoon, after a lengthy interview with police investigators that morning ended with the arrest of Sharon E. Brewster, a five-year LPS employee, on suspicion of first-degree arson. She was jailed and is expected to be charged and appear in court Wednesday.

Investigators and district officials wouldn't comment on a motive.

"Personally, I don't think her intent was to put a building on the ground -- absolutely not," said Bill Moody, the city's chief fire investigator.

District officials estimated the fire's devastation at about $20 million, making it the costliest fire in Lincoln's history. It's unclear whether the district's insurance claims will be affected by the arrest.

Brewster, who resigned Monday afternoon, hadn't been to work since school ended in the spring, and was supposed to return from summer leave last week, but had health issues, Nancy Biggs, associate superintendent for human resources, said at a news conference.

Brewster, 44, had taught in the Reading Recovery program at southwest Lincoln's Saratoga Elementary and worked in the district's gifted program, which was based in the district offices where Brewster had a desk.

At the time of the fire, the district already had decided to hire a replacement Reading Recovery teacher at Saratoga for this year, Biggs said. Brewster was to return to work last week in her role as a gifted facilitator.

A Lincoln police spokesperson said Brewster had been at the district office to drop off records just before the fire, which was discovered by Kirk Langer, the district's director of technology, about 11 p.m. on Memorial Day.

Brewster had key card access to the building, but Moody said record of those who used key cards was partially destroyed in the fire. School officials said Langer told them he didn't see Brewster in the building.

Ken Hilger, the city fire investigator assigned to the case, said Brewster emerged as a suspect in early July, after the district's insurance provider ruled out any mechanical cause.

Hilger wouldn't go into more specifics, but said investigators had been gathering evidence against Brewster since then.

The fire scene yielded no signs of gasoline, matches or other accelerants that might have been used to build the blaze. Moody said investigators believe Brewster started some papers on fire with a lighter.

At the news conference Monday, held in the Celerion building -- which the district has used for temporary office space -- LPS Superintendent Steve Joel said he didn't yet know the details of Brewster's arrest.

"We don't have all the results of that, but certainly with 7,000-plus employees we do have employees that are sometimes disgruntled," he said. "We don't know that that's the case here, although I can't imagine why someone would intentionally set a fire in a district office like that either.

"We condemn any such violence. It is a despicable act for someone to intentionally destroy a building where such important work occurs."

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A pair of firefighters, the first to enter the building before it was engulfed in flames, found fire extending from the supervisor's cubicle to the ceiling and heavy smoke pouring into the area. One firefighter tried using a dry chemical extinguisher before retreating, according to a Lincoln Fire and Rescue report.

The fire spread quickly through the ceiling as high winds and heavy rains pummeled the area.

By the next morning, 250 district employees had lost everything they'd accumulated at work, the computer system was down and virtually every paper record housed in the 100,000-square-foot building was gone.

The district since has found temporary office space, mostly at Celerion and the Experian building. District officials still are looking for a place either to rebuild or relocate.

Biggs said LPS's ability to collect on its insurance policy shouldn't be compromised by the arrest of an employee since the district as an organization didn't conspire to burn down the building.

Joel declined to comment because of ongoing negotiations with the insurance company.

"One person seeking to cause damage will not prevent us from getting on with our role of serving the young people of Lincoln," he said at the news conference. "Tomorrow is the first day of school -- a renewal -- a beginning. We have work to do. It's time to move on."

Reach Zach Pluhacek at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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