School teaches taxpayers an expensive lesson

Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director Randy Evans kicks off Sunshine Week by sharing details the Des Moines school district didn’t disclose when announcing Dr. Tom Ahart’s resignation.

Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart has been a lightning rod during the past three years over the way Iowa’s public schools have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ahart announced last week that he is leaving, effective June 30. But the Des Moines school board ensured that Ahart will 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 is forgoing his $306,193 salary, his $7,200 annual allowance for a car and cell phone, and his $84,019 taxpayer-provided retirement annuity.

But you would be wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Even though he will not be employed by the Des Moines schools after June 30, Ahart will still be paid every nickel, every dime, and every dollar that he would have received had he chosen to work those twelve months left on his contract.

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

The lucrative “separation agreement” was approved by the Des Moines school board during a special board meeting two days after he announced his resignation. The meeting lasted two minutes. Yes, two minutes — and it included time to call the roll, approve the agenda and vote on the agreement. 

No one asked any questions. There was no discussion of the agreement. 

Among the questions not addressed were some that might be of interest to the taxpayers of Iowa, to residents of the Des Moines school district, and to the teachers and other employees of the district. Such as:

Ahart’s $400,000 cash payout is equivalent to the minimum salary for nine Des Moines teachers. How can the school board justify an expense that large at a time when the district is looking for ways to wipe out a projected $9 million budget deficit for the coming school year?

Educators from across Iowa and supporters of the state’s public schools pushed the legislature for a larger appropriation than Republican lawmakers favored. Hasn’t the Des Moines board’s decision seriously undercut the message these advocates made to the legislature — that the majority party was failing to help public schools keep pace with inflation?

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

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

Ahart is disliked by some people and adored by others. He shouldered tremendous responsibilities in the decade he has led Iowa’s largest K-12 school district — educating 31,000 students annually, adapting the curriculum to changing needs, improving graduation rates, improving building security, and coping with the worst health crisis in a century.

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

The agreement with the school board makes abundantly clear that his resignation was voluntary and was not being made in lieu of termination. The agreement includes the standard binding promises by 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.

Every Des Moines teacher signs a one-year contract each school year. Midway through the year, if a teacher decides to resign, the school board is not going to pay the teacher for the unearned salary and benefits for the remainder of the contract. Instead, officials reserve the right to levy a fee against the teacher for the district’s cost of finding a replacement.

This agreement is not saving the Des Moines school district and the taxpayers of Iowa money. There still could be lawsuits against the district over the school board’s and Ahart’s decision to disregard the requirement for 50 percent of classes to be in person when the 2020-2021 school year began.

If that occurs, the separation agreement includes Ahart’s pledge to cooperate with and assist the district’s legal defense. Not surprisingly, given the other content of the document, Ahart will be compensated for his out-of-pocket expenses and for his time in providing that help — “at the rate of $147.00 per hour, to the nearest quarter hour,” the agreement says.

Don’t expect school officials or Ahart to address the questions I laid out earlier. There’s another interesting detail in the agreement that addresses pesky people like me. 

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

That means the taxpayers of Iowa who are paying for his going-away gift won’t be getting answers to their very logical questions.

Randy Evans can be reached at

Appendix: Separation agreement between Dr. Tom Ahart and the Des Moines Independent Community School District

Top image: Dr. Tom Ahart at a February 28 press conference where he announced his planned resignation. Screenshot from the official video.

About the Author(s)

Randy Evans

  • Separation agreement while fighting against odds

    Being the superintendent of a school district, as large and diverse as DMPS, it’s at least as big a deal as being the coach of a college basketball team. Coach Prohm, for example, was earning over $2.1 million and, after an astounding bad season, was pushed out with a reported $5 million golden parachute. He moved on. So, a man with as big or bigger job gets a $4K (not $4M) departure package? I’m shrugging my shoulders. As I recall, Ahart was a known quantity, an administrator already in the district, when he took over in the aftermath of a mini-scandal, and moved DMPS forward. The last couple years with the novel (and mysterious) coronavirus has been awful, and overly political. I have to believe Ahart had more direct discussion with health experts than Reynolds. She seemed more interested in the advice of the Momma Bears. I offer no conclusion about Ahart’s handling of the Covid crisis. My sense is that his tiller was public/student health and not politics or winning basketball games. If the measure is the public good you do while fighting huge odds, I’d say this big city super has earned his departure package.

    • I strongly supported

      how Tom Ahart handled the pandemic. But I think this issue is more about transparency than whether you believe the outgoing superintendent deserves the payout.

  • Why

    The question really is why did the school board feel this was in their/the district’s best interest? What were the alternatives? 1) Have him work another year, 2) resign instead of termination, 3) fire him. Anything else? #3 is very costly, and he’s already on his way out. In the case of #2, don’t all the details then become public? So the current agreement avoids that. In the case of #1, would there have been other costs to the district, and paying out the contract made more sense? You really have to think about this from the school board’s point of view (and from the point of view of their attorney). No district wants to lose $300k+. So why did this move make sense? For the record, I’m not in the district, but from everything I read, I have huge respect for Ahart. It will be interesting to see his next move. And while the board said nothing when they voted, they most certainly discussed the details in closed sessions (look for those agenda dates), as is permitted with personnel matters.

    • yes, I'm sure they discussed

      this in closed sessions. But nothing prevented the school board members from disclosing the key points of the agreement when they announced Ahart’s departure.