© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Reprimand Letter Ends Iowa Superintendent's Virus Dispute

A sign displaying "wear a mask" sits in front of the Jesse Franklin Taylor Education Center, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Charlie Neibergall
AP File
Ahart said he's pleased to have resolved complaints against him over the district's refusal to return students to in-person classes last year during a surge in coronavirus cases.

The superintendent of Iowa’s largest school district said he’s pleased about the resolution of complaints against him over the district’s refusal to return students to in-person classes last year during a surge in coronavirus cases.

Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart said he’s eager to focus on issues facing the district rather than defending himself against complaints affirmed by the state Board of Educational Examiners. The panel found that the district violated the law by not immediately complying with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ order for all schools to offer in-class options for students.

On Wednesday, the board approved an administrative law judge’s decision in June that Ahart should have a letter of public reprimand placed in his permanent licensure file. The judge denied the state’s request that Ahart be required to complete 15 hours of ethics training.

“I am pleased that this matter is resolved,” Ahart said in a statement to The Associated Press. “My focus has been and remains on the real work to be done for our students in Des Moines. From making up for last year’s interruptions to learning, to preparing for a new school year as the cloud of COVID grows once again, to simply fulfilling our mission to support our more than 32,000 students grow and succeed. I’m proud to lead a great team committed to the education and well-being of our students and their families.”

School districts across the country dealt with disputes last year as they tried to balance safety with student learning. But the controversy in Des Moines stood out because the district’s stance contrasted so markedly from the Republican governor’s demand that students have the option of returning to the classroom before vaccines were available, including to teachers. The dispute happened at the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year as Iowa faced some of the nation’s highest rates of coronavirus infections.

Reynolds ordered that schools provide students with in-person learning at least half the time, arguing that the risks of being infected with the coronavirus were outweighed by the need to give parents and students the choice to go to school. Throughout the pandemic, the governor has repeatedly pushed to reduce or end restrictions, saying she needed to balance public health measures with efforts to invigorate the state’s economy and ensure personal freedoms.

The virus has killed more than 6,100 Iowans.

For the first two weeks of the school year, the Des Moines district violated the order until it gave students the options of hybrid or all virtual learning. Board members were concerned that the district’s aging schools didn’t offer enough space or air-filtering capabilities to make in-classroom learning safe for students and teachers.

That delay led to complaints filed with the education board, a panel appointed by the governor. The board found that Ahart violated the law and gave him the option of surrendering his license or agreeing to a lesser sanction.

Ahart appealed the decision, saying he only gave the Des Moines school board options and then carried out its directives. Board members supported Ahart and said it wasn’t fair to punish him for the board’s decisions.

“Trying to save the lives of Iowans, during a period unlike anything any one of us has ever experienced, should not be met with an attack on Dr. Ahart’s career,” the board said in a statement at the time.

Administrative Law Judge David Lindgren acknowledged Ahart’s concern for student and staff safety, and his efforts to give the school board options. But he said the superintendent still can’t break the law. Under the circumstances, though, Lindgren called for the least serious punishment and ordered the letter of reprimand.

Although the complaints against Ahart have been resolved, his future with the district is unclear. The school board in May voted 4-3 against an extension of Ahart’s contract, which runs through June 2023.

School board Chairwoman Dwana Bradley didn’t respond to an email seeking comment about the resolution of the complaint and whether Ahart’s contract would be extended.

Reynolds’ spokesman, Pat Garrett, said the governor declined to comment on the matter.

Reporting by Scott McFetridge for The Associated Press.

Associated Press