The top Democrat in the Iowa Senate says the Legislative Oversight Committee will have “subpoena power” to get leaders of the Iowa Association of School Boards to testify about the association’s spending practices.  

“This thing’s a real message and we’re going to get to the bottom of it,” says Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs). 

The association’s board of directors put their executive director on administrative leave yesterday, pending the outcome of an audit. Gronstal of Council Bluffs says the information that’s already come to light is damning.

“I’ve got to tell you, I think Iowans are outraged at what has gone on there,” Gronstal says. “It appears to me that this has been going on for quite a while and that the organization got rid of some people and hired somebody to clean it up and pretty obviously it wasn’t cleaned up.”

School districts pay dues to the association. One of the association’s former executives used an association credit card to book a holiday in Bora Bora. Officials from the Iowa Association of School Boards are to appear Monday afternoon at a Legislative Oversight Committee hearing at the statehouse to explain that trip and a host of other spending irregularties.

“The executive director literally said, ‘I thought I was getting paid too much money.  I asked them to lower it.’  What kind of executive director can’t get their own pay lowered,” Gronstal asks.  “I mean, something isn’t right in this place and I think, in the end, we’ll have to have subpoena power to get to the answers to it.”

The Legislative Council, which is made up of Gronstal and the rest of the legislature’s top leaders from both parties, can give the Oversight Committee subpoena power to bring in association officials.  “We thought this organization was primarily to help do education of (Iowa school) board members and provide a place for people to share ideas,” Gronstal says. “It appears that they had a number of money-making schemes designed to try to generate for-profit activities and I think a lot of legislators are concerned about it.”

Gronstal suggests the Legislative Oversight Committee’s investigation of this group will last far beyond the end of this month, when the legislative session is scheduled to end. Gronstal says he’s not seen a scandal of this magnitude since what happened at CIETC, the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium.  After audits, criminal investigations and public hearings held by the Legislative Oversight Committee, top executives at the job training agency were sent to jail, as was a former Des Moines city councilman who was on the agency’s board of directors.  Legislators don’t yet know how many for-profit ventures the Iowa Association of School Boards launched, according to Gronstal.

“And we’re going to find out.  It will probably take subpeona power to do it, but we’re going to pursue this until we get the answers to those questions.  It’s just outrageous that any teacher should lose their job while school districts are sending in dues to an organization — I mean, it looks to me like the executive director was paid twice what the governor of Iowa was paid — twice what the governor of the state of Iowa was paid!” Gronstal says. “I think that’s absolutely outrageous.” 

There are other associations which solicit and accept dues from government entities, like cities and counties, and the money for those dues comes from taxpayers.  Gronstal says lawmakers will ask other groups if they’re engaged in the same kind of activities as the Iowa Association of School Boards.

“I think we will certainly ask them those questions:  What kinds of entities do you have out there that are profit-making entities, that are designed to be about kind of empire building?” Gronstal asks.  “It appears to me the School Board Association like I said had  four of five — who knows? — profit-making entities that were all about building some sort of financial empire.”

Gronstal made his comments this morning during taping of the “Iowa Press” program which airs tonight on Iowa Public Television,  Gronstal used the word “outraged” or “outrageous” five times in a six-minute span as he discussed the Iowa Association of School Boards controversy. “I think our first job right now is to get to the bottom of the Iowa Association of School Boards (problem),” Gronstal said. “I think our second job is to make sure these kinds of things are not happening in those other kinds of entities.”

According to Gronstal, groups like the School Board Association that create for-profit entities should be subject to the same open meetings and open records rules as state and local governments in Iowa.

(This story was updated at 1 p.m.)