Embattled school board member speaks out
By ANDREW MCGINN
Superintendent Tim Christensen confirmed Monday that he’s been contacted by community members about how to remove someone from the Greene County Schools board of education following a verbal altercation Oct. 26 between a board member and the head varsity football coach.
But that board member, Mike Dennhardt, says the situation has been blown out of proportion and that he won’t resign from his elected position “til everyone knows what’s going on.”
“I’m not going to get off the school board til this is all hashed out,” vowed Dennhardt, 49, whose term on the board doesn’t expire until 2021. “I’m not just going to walk away from it.”
Talk of Dennhardt’s alleged behavior at both home and away football games swirled throughout this past season — Mitch Moore’s second season as head coach and the high school’s best season on the gridiron in more than a decade.
One parent said that Dennhardt, who had a son on the team, was vocal in the stands with “horrible horrible language.”
But things apparently escalated Oct. 26 following the Rams’ season-ending road loss to Benton Community in the first round of the playoffs.
“I have not threatened anybody,” Dennhardt said.
When reached last week for comment, Moore disputed Dennhardt’s denial, but referred all other questions to the superintendent.
Jefferson Police Chief Mark Clouse said his department hadn’t taken any reports of incidents involving Dennhardt and Moore, but had heard there was “friction” between them.
Dennhardt said the situation — between two people who are both passionate and hotheaded, he said — has been blown out of proportion.
“I’m so bullheaded,” Dennhardt said. “I’m not going to leave the board until everyone knows what happened and what I said.”
A lifelong resident of Greene County, Dennhardt said he was thinking of resigning from the board anyway, saying he’s too busy farming and running a construction business to devote the time needed to be a good school board member.
He said he also doesn’t have the right temperament for the board.
“Emotions don’t make a good board member,” Dennhardt said.
But it’s clear he won’t be forced.
“Let ’em talk about me,” he said. “They’ve talked about me their whole lives.”
Dennhardt heard there’s a petition circulating to have him removed from office, but he hasn’t actually seen it, a situation recalling the murky chain of events that led to Moore’s arrival in 2017 from Iowa State University, where he served on the Cyclones’ Division I coaching staff.
At the time of Moore’s hiring, school board member Mark Peters publicly decried the “mob mentality” and the “bullying” that led former coach Dean Lansman to resign, not only from his job as head coach but from his teaching position at the high school and his role as half-time activities director as well.
Moore stepped into the role of activities director for the district.
This newest flap lays bare a growing tension within the school board itself, an entity that historically has presented itself as a tight-lipped, unified front.
“I’m embarrassed to be on a board with a member who’s acted this way,” said Steve Fisher, the current board vice president.
Fisher said the altercation on Oct. 26 was the fourth reported incident this fall involving Dennhardt.
“I’ve had many, many, many conversations about it,” Fisher said.
Fisher said Dennhardt’s alleged behavior — a combination of threats and “spouting off at the mouth” — were reported to him by a half-dozen eyewitnesses.
“It’s terrible we’ve put up with it multiple times this year,” he said.
But there’s little that can be done, Fisher said, short of banning Dennhardt from school events.
“How does it look if we’ve got a board member who’s been banned from school events?” he asked.
School board members are elected officials, and their removal from office would have to be carried out by the county attorney, as detailed in Iowa Code.
Assistant Greene County Attorney Thomas Laehn, the county attorney-elect, said his office hasn’t been contacted by the school district in any formal way, and he hasn’t seen a petition.
Board members mulled calling a special meeting last week to address the incident, according to Fisher, but nixed the idea.
Dennhardt, on the other hand, said a meeting with all sides present is the only way the whole story can be heard.
Fisher was against a special meeting, simply because there’s no action the board could take, he said.
“It’s going to be a spitting match,” he said. “What’s the point of that? It’s just going to be a spectacle.”
Fisher said Dennhardt should take action into his own hands.
“You really should remove yourself,” he said.
The process of removing an elected official from office, Laehn said, can be instigated by the state attorney general, the county attorney or by a petition signed by just five registered voters.
But Iowa Code is fairly explicit that an elected official must first violate one of seven offenses: neglect or refusal to perform the duties of office; willful misconduct in office; corruption; extortion; upon conviction of a felony; for intoxication or upon conviction of being intoxicated; or upon conviction of violating the provisions of chapter 68A, which deals with campaign finance.
Court records show that Dennhardt was arrested by Jefferson police in May, after a field sobriety test, on a charge of operating while intoxicated, but the charge was later amended by Laehn to open container.
He pleaded guilty in June to open container and received a $200 fine.
Dennhardt said he had “five beers over a five-hour period at a graduation” right before police pulled him over for speeding shortly after 11 p.m. May 5 in the 1300 block of South Elm Street.
He said he understood why Christensen and current board president Peters were upset about the incident, which went largely unnoticed by the public.
“The school board,” Dennhardt said, “takes enough heat for trying to do the best things for kids.”
It wasn’t Dennhardt’s first scrape with the law.
Dennhardt was still on criminal probation when he was originally appointed to the school board in 2016, court records show.
Christensen said he doesn’t know if anyone knew of Dennhardt’s probation at the time of his appointment in February 2016 to fill a board vacancy.
“That would not have disqualified him from the board,” Christensen said this week.
Only someone convicted of a felony is ineligible to serve on the board.
Dennhardt was on informal probation until April of 2016, his punishment for a 2015 misdemeanor in which he broke the glass out of a home’s front door in the 500 block of South Cedar Street in Jefferson by hitting it.
An accompanying assault charge was dismissed by the court.
“Everybody in Greene County knows I wasn’t a very good person at one time,” Dennhardt said.
He said he was sought out to fill a vacancy on the school board because “they wanted someone who would say the truth.”
“I’m not afraid to say what I’ve got to say,” he said.
But Dennhardt’s past — coupled with the latest allegations of threats — is bad for a school district that has worked to regain the public trust, Fisher said, citing a successful bond vote in April after two failed attempts.
“Sometimes,” Fisher said, “perception is reality. It just doesn’t look good.
“It just gives fodder to anyone who wants to be critical of the school. I hate that.”