DES MOINES, Iowa - Just days after Governor Branstad vetoed $55.7 million in school funding, the Des Moines Public School Board approved a contract renewal and pay raise for the district's superintendent.
Saturday in a special meeting, the board unanimously voted to extend Dr. Thomas Ahart's contract as superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools through 2018, with a 3.5 percent pay raise - earning him a salary of $279,864 per year for the next three years. That's compared to the $260,000 a year salary Dr. Ahart received when starting the position in 2013.
Despite intense cuts on education funding from the state, the board - and parents who attended the meeting - agreed Dr. Ahart deserved the raise, which is comparable to the 3-to-5 percent increase any employee with the district gets when they renew their contract.
"No person should earn less money, or have less earning power than they did in a previous year," said Thatcher Williams, a parent of a student in Des Moines Public Schools.
In fact, many at the meeting Saturday echoed support for paying all employees of the district well; retaining the good talent that's helped the district make gains over the years, they argue, is the best way to combat the heavy funding cuts to come.
"Even if their heart and their passion is in teaching, if they can't pay the bills, we all know they're going to go out and look for something that will," Thatcher said.
Dr. Ahart says the funding cuts have caused the district to take precautions it didn't want to take.
"We made a strategic decision back in January to reduce the number of employees we intended to have this year by 47," he said. "With a teaching staff of about 2,800 that may not sound significant, but it is hugely significant."
While all the major indicators show the district vastly improving, Dr. Ahart says there are still many challenges to face. As the state's largest school district, DMPS has many students who don't speak English as a first language, or who are living in poverty.
"We have a lot of improvement to make, I'll be very honest with you about that," he said. "The challenges that we face every year have gotten increasingly more challenging. Our English-language learner student population continues to grow in terms of the total population. Our poverty rate continues to grow as a percentage of the population. Our total population is growing."
Dr. Ahart says the funding cuts from Governor Branstad's veto could cause the ground the district has gained to erode.
"I do, I do worry about that. I don't think it's going to back-slide this year, we have very skilled employees and very smart employees, and we run a very efficient operation here. But I can tell you, if we get a second year of 1.25 or similar inadequate funding, there's no way we can sustain it."
But no matter what, Dr. Ahart says cutting back on investing in the leaders and educators employed by the district would be a mistake. As school board members felt Dr. Ahart deserved a raise today, he feels everyone in the school system deserves investment. And getting the funds to make that happen from the state is the challenge.
"If we want education to be something we want our best and brightest to be attracted to, then there has to be the appearance, from state policy and action perspective, that this is something that this community values," he said.