Education

Fight for school funding equity brings ethics violation for Davenport superintendent

Punishment uncertain for Tate, who intentionally recommended state law be broken

Superintendent Art Tate, right, listens to Davenport School Board members during his annual performance review Aug. 29, 2016. (Andy Abeyta, QUAD-CITY TIMES)
Superintendent Art Tate, right, listens to Davenport School Board members during his annual performance review Aug. 29, 2016. (Andy Abeyta, QUAD-CITY TIMES)

An administrative law judge has ruled that by pressing the issue of inequities of education funding in Iowa — and intentionally recommending state law be broken — Davenport Community Schools Superintendent Art Tate violated the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners code of ethics.

The ruling, which became public on the eve of what was to be Tate’s ethics hearing in Des Moines, leaves unanswered for now what punishment he’ll face.

Administrative Law Judge David Lindgren granted the state summary judgment, saying “no genuine issue of material fact exists” that Tate violated ethics rules.

Tate was accused of spending more of the district’s cash reserves than the state authorized. He had argued he recommended the school board supplement the state’s per pupil funding because Davenport receives less than some other districts under a formula in state law — a measure that many lawmakers agreed earlier this year was unfair.

Legislators voted to spend $2.8 million in 161 school districts that, like Davenport, have a per-pupil funding gap of $175 under the law. That extra, one-time spending, though, closed that gap by just $5 per pupil.

A hearing for Tate was set for Tuesday morning in Des Moines, but Monday afternoon, Department of Inspections and Appeals public information officer David Werning said the matter would be continued.

“The hearing has been continued so the (Iowa) Board of Educational Examiners can consider a proposed settlement agreement,” he said.

The Davenport school district issued a news release Monday saying Tate was “disappointed” he would not get a chance to argue his case.

“Since he has already been judged to be guilty, the sole reason for conducting a hearing would be to determine punishment,” it said.

The punishment will be made public when the Board of Educational Examiners takes action, according to the release. The penalties could include yanking Tate’s administrator license, though the state argued that he instead be reprimanded and undergo more ethics training.

Tate already has announced plans to retire on June 30, 2019.

He has long criticized the state’s school funding formula and the district’s news release continued to make the point.

“These funds were spent in order to equalize the per-pupil funding amount for all Davenport Community Schools students who have been receiving $175 less per pupil than many other districts throughout the State due to an inequality in the state funding formula,” it said.

In his ruling, Lindgren referred to 2015, when, during a school board meeting, Tate informed the board and public of his intent to violate state law: “With my plan that begins next school year, I put into play operations which will bring us into spending more than authorized by the state during school year 2016-2017, and that violates (the state code).”

The judge said a summary judgment is appropriate to avoid “useless trials or hearings when the case can be decided as a legal matter” but in this case not appropriate for deciding punishment.

“While Tate is certainly to be commended for his deep concern for and public activism on behalf of his district, one cannot condone such willful failure to comply with the law,” Lindgren wrote. “To say that Tate could not have violated (the code) because only the School Board can adopt and certify the budget ignores the important role the superintendent plays in this joint process.”

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The question is not whether Tate had the authority to violate the law, “it is whether he violated an ethical duty to comply with the standards set forth in it. He did not comply with it,” the judge wrote.

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