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This is why anxiety about secrecy led us into court
May. 21, 2023 6:00 am
In 2017, the Iowa Legislature responded to concerns from Gov. Terry Branstad and amended Iowa law to ensure when government employees are forced out of their jobs the reasons must be made public and not shrouded in secrecy.
The goal was commendable. The governor was right. People deserve to be told “why.” It is called public accountability.
Since then, the transparency promised six years ago has diminished.
Since then, government employers have been more interested in avoiding embarrassment or uncomfortable questions.
Since then, government has been less interested in informing the people of Iowa in whose name government exists and operates.
Last week, the nonprofit organization I lead stepped up to try to stem this tide of secrecy-over-transparency. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council and I sued the Centerville school board, challenging the legality of its closed meeting in February that ended a two-month suspension of the Centerville High School guidance counselor and baseball coach.
Ryan Hodges was placed on leave around Dec. 1 last year following allegations of inappropriate behavior with a minor. School officials refused in December and again in February to share with the public the nature of Hodges’ actions. They refused to say whether the investigation found the allegations to be true or whether the investigation found no factual basis for the accusations.
School officials claimed they were not required to make public any of those details because Hodges submitted what they insisted was a voluntary resignation.
Our interest in the Centerville case is not motivated by some prurient interest in the details of what he is accused of engaging in with more than just one female student. Our concerns come from a belief residents of the Centerville district, the people who pay the taxes and sent their kids and grandkids to the schools there, deserve to know what went on at Centerville High School.
They deserve to know how their elected school board and the district’s administrators responded to the allegations brought to their attention by female students during the two-month investigation. The public deserves to know what outside investigators learned about allegations of predatory behavior by Hodges.
They deserve to know why, after Hodges had been on administrative leave for two months, he was allowed to depart without any “documented reasons and rationale” being made public about the sudden end of his employment, a disclosure the Branstad-era amendment added to the public records law.
They deserve to know why, if the allegations against Hodges were baseless, he was not allowed to return to work with his name cleared. They deserve to know why, if the allegations against Hodges were true, the school board did not begin the firing process. After all, the taxpayers had been continuing to pay his full salary and provide insurance for the two months he was not allowed to work during the investigation.
And equally important, potential future employers deserve to know what baggage Hodges might bring to a new school district after being accused of violating parental trust — and possibly Iowa law, too.
Such baggage has not always been easily knowable for prospective employers, or the public. Consider the case of Cody LaKose.
He was arrested in March at Regina High School in Iowa City, where he was a teacher. The criminal charges involve allegations, backed up with cellphone text messages, that LaKose groomed and then had an ongoing sexual relationship with an underage female student at Central DeWitt High School in 2017.
LaKose taught there from 2010 until December 2018, when he abruptly resigned in the middle of his contract. He and the Central DeWitt district signed an agreement to resolve “all issues arising out of LaKose’s employment with the district.”
Just as with Ryan Hodges in Centerville, Central DeWitt officials never provided details about LaKose’s conduct or what those issues were.
Instead, Central DeWitt continued to pay LaKose and provide him with insurance benefits for the remainder of the school year. The district also agreed to provide him with “mutually agreeable letters of reference” he could present to prospective employers.
The Central DeWitt district did not report his sudden resignation, or the background leading to it, to the Iowa teaching licensing board. Having a license in good standing — and the absence of transparency about his departure — allowed LaKose to obtain teaching jobs in the Cedar Rapids schools and then at Regina High School.
The opaqueness about LaKose’s departure shows what can occur when secrecy wins out over transparency — and when school officials are more concerned about getting a problem employee out of their district and less concerned about the potential for the person committing misconduct somewhere else in the future.
A footnote to the LaKose case should outrage parents everywhere:
While Central DeWitt Superintendent Dan Peterson insisted he could not say what LaKose did that led to his resignation, after LaKose’s arrest in Iowa City Peterson posted the criminal complaint filed against the former employee on the school district’s website. That posting included the name of the girl who went to police last year when she was worried LaKose might try to take advantage of students in another district the way he took advantage of her.
It is hard to understand why the superintendent chose to share that detail. But it should not be hard to understand why there is a need for more transparency about resignations that are not strictly voluntary.
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com
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