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Senators ponder new route to remove school board members

DES MOINES — After students in Des Moines Public School spent much of the fall semester in online classes, a bill in the Iowa Senate is designed to make it easier to eject members from a school board.

Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, is raising concerns about giving just five registered voters the power to petition a judge to remove school board members.

“Let’s say the court did determine that the entire board or half the board had violated the law and agreed with their removal, without the ability to hold an immediate special election, school boards would be unable to function,” Piper said Tuesday. “They would not have a quorum, they could not do their business.”

Bill sponsors also want a state agency to speed up the process for disciplining or removing superintendents who knowingly and intentionally violate state law. Dave Wilkerson of the School Administrators of Iowa said there’s already a process for pursuing ethics complaints against superintendents and the bill isn’t necessary.

“It just seems a little petty,” Wilkerson said, “and would hope that we wouldn’t go down that road.”

Senator Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, said to dismiss the bill as petty misses the point.

“Tell that to the students having mental problems because of the actions of several school boards and administrators in the state of Iowa,” Zaun said.

Two members of the Des Moines School Board testified during a Senate subcommittee hearing, saying they’d done the best they could in a district with 60 buildings, 31,000 students and 5,000 teachers and staff. Des Moines School Board chair Dwana Bradley said there was no playbook for a pandemic.

“As a school board, our focus was fundamental: do everything we can to educate our children and to keep the people from getting sick and even dying,” she said.

Rob Barron, vice chair of the Des Moines School Board, said they had to make tough calls and they are listening to complaints from legislators.

“I hope this is the first step in finding common ground so we can all be public servants,” he said, “the public servants our 31,000 kids in Des Moines Public Schools and their families need.”

Senate Education Committee chair Amy Sinclair said something must be done to speed up sanctions for school officials who willfully flout state law. Sinclair pointed to the years it took the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners to address decisions made by Davenport school leaders that put the district in financial jeopardy.

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