Outgoing superintendent’s payout teaches taxpayers a costly lesson

Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart has been a lightning rod for the past three years on how Iowa public schools have responded to the COVID pandemic.

Ahart announced last week that he was leaving, effective June 30. But the Des Moines School Board assured that Ahart would continue to carry that lightning rod for a little longer.

His contract runs for another year, until June 30, 2023. So you might think he’s giving up his $306,193 salary, his $7,200 annual stipend for a car and cellphone, and his retirement pension of $84,019 provided by taxpayers.

But you would be wrong, wrong and wrong.

Even though he won’t be employed by Des Moines Schools after June 30, Ahart will still be paid every penny, penny and dollar he would have received had he elected to work those remaining 12 months on his contract. .

This means that Ahart will be paid as much to relax full time as he would have been paid to work full time.

The lucrative “severance deal” was approved by the Des Moines School Board at a special board meeting two days after his resignation was announced. The meeting lasted two minutes. Yes, two minutes – and that included time to call the roll, approve the agenda and vote on the deal.

No one asked questions. There was no discussion of the deal.

Among the issues not addressed are some that may be of interest to Iowa taxpayers, residents of the Des Moines School District, and teachers and other district employees. As:

Ahart’s $400,000 cash payment equals the minimum salary of nine Des Moines teachers. How can the school board justify such a large expense at a time when the district is looking for ways to eliminate a projected $9 million budget shortfall for the upcoming school year?

Educators across Iowa and supporters of the state’s public schools pushed the legislature for greater ownership than lawmakers wanted. Didn’t the Des Moines Board of Trustees’ decision seriously undermine the message these advocates sent to the Legislative Assembly — that lawmakers have not helped public schools keep pace with inflation?

Ahart supporters remind us that the school board decided last year not to extend his contract beyond June 2023. The move came amid a statewide controversy over his joint decision and that of the board to start the 2020-2021 school year with all classes online – despite a new state law that required at least half of classes to be held in person.

Des Moines’ decision to have all classes online led the Iowa Board of Education Examiners, the state licensing agency for school administrators and teachers, to reprimand Ahart for breaking the new law.

Ahart is hated by some people and loved by others. He took on enormous responsibilities in the decade he led Iowa’s largest district – educating 31,000 students a year, adapting the curriculum to changing needs, improving graduation rates, improving building safety. and dealing with the worst health crisis in a century.

But the reaction to that $400,000 severance package — a “nice parting gift,” as former game show hosts might call it — should go beyond whether or not we like Ahart.

The agreement with the school board makes it very clear that his resignation was voluntary and did not constitute dismissal. The agreement includes standard binding promises from each party not to sue the other party.

But the undeniable fact remains: Ahart is leaving now, rather than a year from now, because of his own choice.

Each teacher in Des Moines signs a one-year contract each school year. Midway through the year, if a teacher decides to resign, the school board will not pay the teacher unearned salary and benefits for the remainder of the contract. Instead, officials reserve the right to collect a fee from the teacher to cover the district’s cost of finding a replacement.

This agreement does not spare the Des Moines school district and the taxpayers of Iowa money. There could still be lawsuits against the district over the school board and Ahart’s decision to disregard the requirement that 50% of classes be held in person at the start of the 2020 school year- 2021.

If that happens, the separation agreement includes Ahart’s commitment to cooperate and assist the district’s legal defense. Unsurprisingly, given the other content of the document, Ahart will be compensated for his disbursements and time spent providing this assistance – “at the rate of $147.00 per hour, quarter-hourly close,” the agreement says.

Don’t expect school officials or Ahart to answer the questions I posed earlier. There’s another interesting detail in the deal that concerns pesky people like me.

The agreement states that the council and Ahart will “develop a mutually acceptable statement regarding Dr. Ahart’s resignation from the district, which shall be the sole statement of the parties, including the council members in their individual and official capacity.”

That means Iowa taxpayers paying for his parting gift won’t get their very logical questions answered.