# Des Moines Public Schools



Good news, bad news

Bleeding Heartland user dbmarin is a musician, former Register reporter and sound designer. His collaboration with video artist Oyoram (7even Stories High) is currently featured at The Des Moines Art Center’s IMMERSIVE installation.

I’ll start with the good news.

It looks as if Matthew Smith, deputy superintendent for the Des Moines Public Schools, has been tapped as the interim superintendent while the district searches for Tom Ahart’s successor.

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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.

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An open letter to the Des Moines School Board

Dave O’Connor teaches at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines. -promoted by Laura Belin

On October 14, the president of the United States held a superspreader event at the Des Moines Airport for 6,000 mostly un-masked, non-socially distanced supporters. Governor Kim Reynolds was right at his side. He did it on the same day that our neighbors in Wisconsin, who are now at the epicenter of the pandemic, opened a field hospital with 500 beds to try to relieve pressure on their overtaxed hospital system, and only eight days after hospitalizations for COVID-19 reached an all-time high in Iowa–a record that has been surpassed multiple times since.

And just for good measure, the rally directly violated the governor’s own emergency proclamations, which require organizers of mass gatherings to “ensure at least six feet of physical distance between each group or individual attending alone.”

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Better late than never

Superintendent Nancy Sebring and a “facilities advisory committee” are recommending that the Des Moines school district save $2 million a year after 2011 by not extending a contract with Taylor Ohde Kitchell to manage construction projects for the district:

Currently, Taylor Ohde Kitchell has a $19.3 million contract to oversee construction projects through June 30, 2011.

“We have fewer dollars to spend, and we want as much of those to go into schools and impacting students and adults at those schools,” Sebring said.

This sensible recommendation is long overdue, and the school board should adopt it unanimously.

School board member Jonathan Narcisse is unpopular with his colleagues. But to his credit, he had been demanding a thorough review of the contract with Taylor Ohde Kitchell for years. Unfortunately, the majority of Des Moines school board members in a position to do something about this matter dismissed the concerns of those who criticized the contract, including Narcisse and Nan Stillians.

Last year attorney Nicholas Critelli investigated this matter and found that Taylor Ohde Kitchell didn’t comply with the law on competitive bidding for school projects. Critelli recommended that the Des Moines school board terminate the contract with the construction management firm and consider filing suit as well. However, the majority on the school board voted not to sue or even terminate the contract early.

As a parent of a child in the Des Moines public school system, I hate seeing big money continue to be spent on this contract, but it’s comforting to know that the current superintendent doesn’t plan to repeat her predecessor’s mistakes.

The Des Moines Register covered other recommendations from Sebring and the facilities committee here. If the school board approves the plan, Des Moines schools that weren’t renovated during the past decade with local-option sales tax money are likely to have some improvements funded by state sales tax revenue.

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Culver cuts spending across the board by 1.5 percent

Ouch:

Gov. Chet Culver announced an across-the-board budget cut today and said education and Medicaid won't escape unscathed.

Culver announced a 1.5 percent across-the board reduction in an attempt to deal with the state's declining revenues.

The governor said staff reductions and employee furloughs are likely, which will be determined by each department. "It's going to be painful," he said.

The cuts announced today amount to $91.4 million and will have an effect on services, Culver acknowledged. In addition, Culver ordered a transfer of $10 million of unused money into the general budget. Most of that transfer money will come from an underground storage tank account, which is used to investigate and clean up any past petroleum contamination from underground storage tanks.

A week ago, Culver announced $40 million in cuts, largely through a hiring freeze and limiting out-of-state travel. In addition, Culver said he will ask the Legislature to withdraw plans for a $37 million new office building.

Combined with cuts announced Dec. 9, the total is $178.4 million in reduced expenses in the current budget year that ends June 30.

Clearly spending cuts in the current year are unavoidable because of the decline in projected revenues.

When state legislators draft next year's budget, though, I hope they will not rely only on spending cuts to make up for projected lower revenues. David Sirota explains why:

Almost every single economist agrees, the last thing we want to do in a recession is slash government spending. We want, in fact, to increase that spending so that it is a counter-cyclical force to a deteriorating economy. So the question, then, is how to most safely generate the revenue to maintain or increase that spending. By  "most safely" I mean how to raise the revenue in a way that will minimize any negative economic impact. And the answer comes from Joseph Stiglitz:

 

"[T]ax increases on higher-income families are the least damaging mechanism for closing state fiscal deficits in the short run. Reductions in government spending on goods and services, or reductions in transfer payments to lower-income families, are likely to be more damaging to the economy in the short run than tax increases focused on higher-income families."

So, first and foremost, you don't want dramatic spending cuts (beyond the usual rooting out of waste/fraud) and you don't want to raise taxes on middle- and lower-income citizens who both need the money for necessities, and are the demographics that will most quickly spend money in a stimulative way. That leaves taxes on the super-rich, and Stiglitz - unlike anti-tax ideologues - has actual data to make his case.

For more information, see Budget Cuts or Tax Increases at the State Level:

Which is Preferable During an Economic Downturn?

Will Democrats dare to raise taxes, knowing that Republican candidates and interest groups will hammer them for it in 2010?

I have no idea, but if drastic spending cuts send the economy further into recession, 2010 isn't going to be a picnic for Democrats anyway. I doubt they'll rally the troops with "At least we didn't raise your taxes" as a campaign message.

When analyzing the new Iowa House Democratic committee assignments, Chase Martyn noticed,

Almost all vulnerable Democratic incumbents have been kept off the Ways and Means committee.  In a year of budget shortfalls, Ways and Means will likely have to send some tax-increasing bills to the floor.

Post any thoughts about the budget/spending/taxes debate in this thread.

UPDATE: The press release from Culver's office is after the jump.

SECOND UPDATE: If you think Iowa's budget outlook is grim, read this short piece about the situation in California.

THIRD UPDATE: Nancy Sebring, the superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools, announced plans to cut $3.3 million from the current-year budget (about 1 percent) in light of the state budget cuts. Presumably most if not all school districts in Iowa will need to take similar action. I wouldn't be surprised if fiscal constraints force more of our small school districts to merge.

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