Bill would impose tougher penalties on school officials who violated COVID-19 reopening orders

Des Moines Public Schools and MercyOne held their first vaccination clinic for teachers and staff on Saturday, Feb. 6. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

School officials who violate state laws, including COVID-19 reopening orders, could be subject to stiffer penalties under a bill moving through the Senate.

Senate Study Bill 1213 introduces new penalties for superintendents and school board members who violate Iowa’s educational laws. School board members may be removed for “knowingly or intentionally violating” Iowa law. Superintendents who violate the law may have their license revoked.

The bill also takes aim retroactively at COVID-19 infractions. If a school district offered primarily remote learning without a waiver from the state, the Board of Educational Examiners could suspend or revoke the license of that district’s superintendent. 

That could mean trouble for Des Moines Public Schools. DMPS went against state guidance in the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year and offered primarily remote learning without a waiver. It has since come into compliance.

Des Moines school officials asked lawmakers to be understanding of the difficulties of running a large school district during a pandemic. Dwana Bradley, chair of the Des Moines school board, said school officials, like all elected officials, just wanted to do what was best for students in uncertain times

“I know there are some in the State Capitol who don’t agree with our decision making,” she 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.”

Board Vice Chair Rob Barron said that he received constant, conflicting feedback from parents. Some were desperate for schools to reopen, others were equally terrified for the health of their family members.

“Someone needs to make the tough calls,” Barron said. “I know I got some of them wrong, and I wish I had not, but I accept my imperfection.”

Several education lobbyists in the subcommittee noted that there are already pathways for reprimanding superintendents and school board members who willfully violate laws. David Wilkerson, a lobbyist with the School Administrators of Iowa, said that there was no problem with holding school officials accountable, but he was “troubled” by the retroactive clause in the proposal.

“It just seems a little petty,” he said.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the bill might be an unconstitutional “ex post facto” law because it enhances the penalties for disobeying COVID-19 reopening procedures after such infractions have already happened. Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, acknowledged his concerns with the section.

Republicans in the subcommittee firmly supported the bill, arguing that it would improve a “broken” system. Subcommittee chair Sinclair said the bill was not petty or targeted at Des Moines Public Schools, but instead part of a larger discussion about school system accountability. She cited intentional overspending by the Davenport Community School District as another scenario where additional penalties were needed.

“There are violations, and there is no consequence when those violations do have harmful effects on children and families,” Sinclair said.

The bill advanced out of subcommittee by a 2-1 vote.

Katie Akin
Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.