Council sues school district over closed meeting

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council sued the Centerville school district on Wednesday, challenging the legality of a closed meeting on Feb. 3 during which the school board accepted the resignation of an employee who had been on administrative leave for two months following accusations he had engaged in inappropriate conduct with a student.

Ryan Hodges had been the guidance counselor at Centerville High School, the school’s baseball coach and a child abuse investigator for the school district until he was placed on paid leave about Dec. 1, 2022.

Hodges signed a resignation agreement on Feb. 1, although the school board met in closed session two days later to discuss his departure under an exception to the public meetings law that allows personnel evaluations and hiring and firing decisions to be discussed in private when necessary to avoid needless and irreparable harm to an employee or prospective employee’s reputation.

Although the school board president signed the resignation agreement on Feb. 3, the school district paid Hodges two more weeks’ compensation following his resignation.

Iowa law requires the “documented reasons and rationale” to be made public whenever a state or local government employee is fired or resigns in lieu of termination. Centerville school officials refused to provide an explanation about the Hodges investigation. The school board never discussed the allegations against him in a public meeting, nor did board members share with taxpayers why the board chose to pay him for 15 more days after he supposedly resigned voluntarily.

Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, said the taxpayers in the Centerville school district and other interested people deserve to know what the investigation found about a key employee at the high school.

“Were the allegations founded or not?” Evans asked. “If they were unfounded, why was he still on administrative leave? But if the allegations were founded, was the district prepared to end his employment? If the allegations were founded, why did the district agree to pay him for 15 days after his departure? The public needs information, not more secrecy.”

Evans said the Iowa Legislature amended the public records law in 2017 to make abundantly clear why a government employee is fired, demoted or forced out of their job. Since then, it has become increasingly common for government entities like the Centerville school district to try to circumvent that legal requirement by characterizing such departures as voluntary resignations, rather than resignations in lieu of termination.

Evans said the Centerville school board’s handling of the allegations against Hodges is part of a troubling practice by some Iowa school leaders that keeps unsuspecting parents and students in the dark about the behavior of adults who have been entrusted with the safety and wellbeing of students.

Examples are too numerous in which the results of investigations of the conduct of  teachers and coaches are kept confidential in return for their resignations, Evans said. Without a formal termination vote and the disclosure of the results of these investigations, the employees are free to seek employment in another school district.

The Iowa FOI Council is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that was organized 47 years ago to advocate in support of open government.

A copy of the Centerville lawsuit is attached. 2023-05-11 Petition – IFOIC v. CSD

The Council is being represented by Des Moines attorneys Michael Giudicessi and Susan Elgin.