Iowa CCI files ethics complaint against Rep. Fisher over involvement with Tama-Toledo Christian School

State Rep. Dean Fisher (R-Montour).

News Chronicle note: This story has been updated since first publishing online last week with comments from Iowa CCI member and Tama County resident Berleen Wobeter, as well as comment from Rep. Dean Fisher.

DES MOINES — A liberal activist group has filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Dean Fisher (R-Montour), whose Iowa House district includes most of Tama County and all of Poweshiek County, over allegations that he is attempting to “cash in” on Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) as a founder and board president of the newly created Tama-Toledo Christian School.

In a press release issued last Wednesday, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) laid out its case against Fisher, who was first elected in 2012.

“Representative Fisher has clearly violated Iowa’s House Ethics Rules with his private school,” Iowa CCI Board President Barb Kalbach said. “First he campaigned on private school vouchers. Then he voted for them. And now he’s trying to cash in on them by using over $900,000 in voucher money to operate the school each year. The House Ethics Committee needs to do its job and take action against Fisher for his ethics violations.”

The release calls on the House Ethics Committee to “tell Rep. Fisher (that) he cannot discuss, lobby for, or vote on any future legislation that continues or expands voucher benefits.” Iowa CCI also asks the committee to “tell all lawmakers they cannot use voucher money for private schools they are associated with or use voucher money to send their children or grandchildren to a private school.”

The aforementioned redistricting pitted Fisher, a supporter of the ESA/voucher program, against fellow Republican David Maxwell of Gibson, who opposed it, in a 2022 primary. With an endorsement from Gov. Kim Reynolds, Fisher coasted to a victory of nearly 25 percentage points in the primary before defeating Democrat Sarah Smith in the general election, receiving 56.6 percent of the votes cast to Smith’s 43.3 percent.

On Friday afternoon, Fisher responded to the filing in a statement to the News Chronicle.

“This complaint is clearly just a politically motivated attempt to smear me. It’s wrong to use the mechanisms of government to attack someone you simply disagree with on policy. I am urging the committee to meet as soon as possible and dismiss the complaint with prejudice,” he said.

The ethics committee is comprised of three Republicans — Chair Anne Osmundson, Vice Chair Stan Gustafson and Henry Stone — and three Democrats — Ranking Member Ruth Ann Gaines, Monica Hosch Kurth and Rick Olson. In an email, Osmundson told the T-R that Fisher has 10 days to respond to the complaint, and the committee will then meet to consider the complaint and the response.

Berleen Wobeter, an Iowa CCI member from rural Toledo, said she helped to make the group aware of the issue.

“I am a member of Iowa CCI and was working with members to restore mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL) for beef to better protect our local independent beef producers when the story of Dean Fisher’s Christian school plans broke. It was an immediate topic of concern and conversation among community members who didn’t think it seemed right. It was unclear how to respond,” she said in a statement. “CCI members support every child receiving a quality education regardless of zip code. Distribution of ESA funds will hurt rural public school districts like STC but it is legal. Rep. Fisher’s very public plans for the creation of his Christian school, however, caught the attention of other CCI members who better understood the ethical implications. As a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, Fisher is expected to be held to a standard of ethical behavior. Just as one would question the behavior of a public school board member who promotes the purchase of new school curriculum, votes for it and is then found to be the owner of the company selling it, that kind of behavior needs to be questioned. The ethics complaint offers reasonable remedies.”

As previously reported in the T-R and Tama-Grundy publications, the leaders of the K-8 Tama-Toledo Christian School have signed a lease agreement to renovate the old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at 600 Oswego St. in Tama and hope to start classes by the fall of 2025. In a January email to the T-R, Fisher said the board plans to hire three full-time teachers for the first year of operation — contingent on enrollment numbers — while also hiring part-time teachers for special area classes including art, music, and physical education.

He added that while they have not yet begun to register students, “interest was building,” and everyone who had contacted him up to that point lived in the Tama-Toledo area. According to a December Iowa Association of Christian Schools newsletter, the TTCS is one of 13 new private accredited Christian school startups the Iowa Association of Christian Schools was working with last year in the months following Iowa’s ESA legislation being signed into law.