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Senate Bill Elevates Consequences For School Officials Who Violate State Law

Iowa's Capitol.
John Pemble
IPR file
Des Moines schools started the year online without permission from the Iowa Department of Education, and sued state officials over a law requiring primarily in-person learning.

School board members could be removed from office for violating state law, and superintendents could face stronger professional sanctions, under a bill advanced by an Iowa Senate subcommittee.

The proposal does not name Des Moines Public Schools directly, but it could be used to target district leaders for their actions during the coronavirus pandemic. DMPS started the year online last fall without permission from the Iowa Department of Education, and sued state officials over a law requiring primarily in-person learning.

Under the Senate bill (SSB 1213), that would be grounds to recall school board members and to revoke the superintendent’s license.

Senator Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said DMPS officials broke the law and left some students behind academically.

“I recognize that there’s a lot of great things that are going on in the Des Moines Public Schools, but there’s some kids and parents that are being let down,” said Zaun who supported advancing the bill. “And I think all this does is just make sure that we fix a system that I think is broken right now.”

Opponents of the bill said it would be unconstitutional to increase the penalties for Des Moines school leaders after the fact. They said school board members will be held accountable for their decisions at the ballot box and that superintendents can already face discipline through the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners for violating federal, state or local laws.

Des Moines school board president Dwana Bradley told the subcommittee that lawmakers should not retaliate over decisions they disagree with.

“I know there are some at the state Capitol who don’t agree with our decision-making,” Bradley said. “But I am also asking that you do not move this legislation forward and, rather, extend grace to elected officials who took many factors into consideration in making their decision in the midst of a global crisis unlike anything anyone of us has ever experienced.”

Bradley asked to meet with Republican lawmakers to discuss the district’s relationship with the legislature.

DMPS has been the topic of other proposed bills this session. A Senate proposal to provide COVID-relief funding for schools would have excluded districts, such as Des Moines, that used primarily remote learning without a state waiver.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, who chaired the subcommittee and leads the Senate Education Committee, said she would be glad to meet with DMPS board members. But, she said, there should be stronger consequences when any district officials knowingly violate state law.

“It’s a much broader topic of conversation that I think we do need to advance based on the fact that there are violations and there are no consequences when those violations have harmful effects on children and families,” Sinclair said.

The bill now goes to the Senate Education Committee.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa