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Mason City School Board says changes have already been made in response to 'improper disbursements,' state audit

MASON CITY | At a meeting of the Mason City School Board on Monday night, board members highlighted policy changes implemented before a state audit critical of its processes and fiscal management was released last month.

That report, issued by the state auditor's office near the end of December, found some $2.2 million in improper disbursements had been made between July 1, 2009 and Aug. 31, 2017. 

Additionally, the auditor's report identified a lack of board meeting minutes on pay increases and an over-reliance on electronic signatures for contracts as practices that could've fostered such disbursements. In fact, those two particular issues were singled out by investigators as reasons why they broadened the scope of a previous audit.

The meeting, a work session rather than a regular meeting, was the first time since the report was issued that members of the public had a chance to vent their frustrations at the state auditor's findings. However only one person, Katie Koehler, a teacher of 33 years, worried about the report's potential impact.

"(I) worry about attracting teachers to this district," Koehler said. "Right now, there's a mark on it, but I do think we can get past it."

CHRIS ZOELLER The Globe Gazette 

Katie Koelher, a teacher of 33 years, speaks during a committee of the whole work session meeting where the Mason City Schools Board of Education discussed the investigative report of the Auditor of the State on Monday.

In response, Mason City School Board President Jodi Draper specifically outlined policies the school board worked to put in place since the start of the investigation.

According to Draper, all meetings for school board officials are now taped and the board president personally signs all administrative contracts. Additionally, the meeting minutes are more carefully updated.

In her remarks, Draper made sure to speak to Mason City as a whole. "Each one of us lives in this community so we understand your anger."

Other board members echoed Draper's sentiments while clarifying possible misconceptions about the 78-page auditor's report. 

Brent Seaton, a member elected in 2015, pointed out that no one currently sitting on the board has their name in the report and that the audit doesn't explicitly speak to whether something illegal has been done.

"[The] audit is not a partisan matter," Seaton said. "It's black and white. The audit is the audit."

Seaton also argued that the audit was a testament to the board "doing its job," an idea expressed by board member Alan Steckman as well. 

Member Doug Campbell succinctly said that school staff "soldiered on" during the investigation and its aftermath. 

Lorrie Lala, another member of the board, made it clear that the school board's job "ended" once the audit's findings were taken up by the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation.

Superintendent Dave Versteeg capped the testimonials by announcing that he wants to "look into Clear Lake overbilling and other sharing projects further" and correct any issues with individuals possibly being "underpaid." 

The Clear Lake district paid $7,370 more than it should've in a sharing agreement with Mason City, according to the audit.

Everything you need to know about the Mason City Schools audit

Castro vows to champion health care, housing during 2020 bid

NORTH LIBERTY (AP) — Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro introduced himself to Iowa Democrats on Monday night as a champion for universal health care and affordable housing as he indicated he was close to launching a run for the presidency.

Castro spoke with party activists at a crowded house party in North Liberty after forming an exploratory committee last month. Castro said that he would announce his presidential campaign on Saturday in San Antonio and that he looked forward to meeting with Iowa voters before the first-in-the-nation caucuses next year.

Castro said that he would lay out his vision for making the United States "the smartest, the healthiest, the fairest and the most prosperous nation in the world." He said that his plans will include expanding Medicare to allow access for all and addressing what he called a housing affordability crisis in which rising rents are squeezing the poor and middle class.

Castro, who served as the nation's housing secretary during President Barack Obama's second term, also promised that he will not accept money from political action committees tied to corporations and unions.

"What you're going to hear from me is that I'm not taking that PAC money, that I support universal health care, and that I've shown in my time in public service an ability to stand with the people instead of the special interests, and I've taken action to do that," said Castro, 44.

Castro shook hands, spoke and fielded questions for an hour as guests sipped wine from plastic cups. He received a warm welcome from the activists, who said they were eager for someone who could defeat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. North Liberty is a fast-growing bedroom community that's located near Iowa City in Johnson County, which has long been the state's liberal stronghold.

Castro's visit was the latest activity in Iowa as the field of candidates seeking the Democratic Party's nomination begins to take shape. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts visited the state over the weekend after forming her own exploratory committee, and several more candidates are expected to join the race soon.

Castro acknowledged that some Democrats will view his and other candidates' decisions to not accept PAC money as tantamount to "bringing a knife to a gun fight." But he said that the Democratic nominee will have no problem raising money from individuals who want change and that the decision sends an important message.

"I think it says something, that if a candidate doesn't take that money, they're going to work for you," he said. "If I'm elected, that's what I'm going to do."

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Mason City caretaker who assaulted two dependent adults will serve up to 4 years in prison

MASON CITY | A Mason City man who assaulted two dependent adults while working as their caretaker was sentenced to up to four years in prison Monday.

Wasfie Ahmed Alshara, 19, pleaded guilty in August to two counts of misdemeanor assault with intent to commit sexual abuse.

Alshara will serve two sentences of up to two years in prison with credit for time served and two $625 suspended fines.  The sentences will be served consecutively.

He will also serve a 10 year special sentence under the supervision of the Iowa Department of Corrections, similar to parole, and is required to register as a sex offender.

Two no contact orders were filed in the case after sentencing.

Alshara was initially charged with two counts of felony third-degree sexual abuse in June, but the charges were lowered in a plea agreement in August from the Floyd County attorney, who is serving as special prosecutor after the Cerro Gordo County Attorney's Office said it had a conflict of interest in the case.

A conviction of one count of third-degree sexual abuse carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Police say he raped and sexually assaulted two dependent women at two Mason City locations in June and November 2017. In Iowa law, rape and sexual assault are charged as sexual abuse.

He was previously employed by Comprehensive Systems, Inc. and One Vision.

Alshara is currently held at Cerro Gordo County Jail and will be transferred to Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale.

North Iowa's mugshots of 2018

North Iowa's mugshots of 2018