After attending last evenings District Parent Organization/Gazette School Board candidate forum, two impressions were lasting. One: candidates felt that communication from the district and School Board to the public were generally lacking and two: trust with the public has been broken regarding the processes that allow the district to function. What was generally absent in the conversation is their priorities for how the board would communicate priorities and the financial constraints that will hamstring them for the foreseeable future in making decisions.
I felt that two candidates really understood the financial constraints better than the others, Mike Cooper and Sarah Swisher. A dialogue between the two of them was particularly telling as to how funding streams affect what can be done regarding busing students. This is not to say that other candidates didn't talk about "fiscal responsibility", but there was no particular context given for their statements.
With regard to creative/pragmatic solutions to the issues of student achievement, school overcrowding, and boundary issues, Jean Jordison highlighted the successes of the Davenport schools in using their school bond referendum monies in an accountable way. She also highlighted the need to look at best practices. Sarah Swisher also promoted the idea of targeted year-round schooling at Kirkwood and Grant Wood elementaries. Mike Cooper expressed an interest in exploring whether expanding junior highs to grade 9 or opening a separate 9th grade academy could be considered.
With respect to communication, April Armstrong and Tuyet Dorau were clear about ways to communicate the business of the board to the public in transparent ways using technology, board members being responsible to visit schools multiple times a year, and attending school events where they could communicate with parents. What was lacking in their presentation was how they intended to be effective in doing this given their own careers and family obligations. A discussion with Jan Leff and Tim Krumm may convince them that the time commitment to hold public meetings is considerable, particularly over a four year term.
Anne Johnson's contributions were not negligible, but were often agreements with others on the panel. Her most significant contribution was bringing up teacher salaries and her desire to keep district cuts away from the classroom, with the understanding that teachers would need to be open to a less than 5 to 6% pay hike annually when the allowable growth formula maxes out at 4%. Both Swisher and Dorau expressed a need to work to increase the state formula.
I was sitting next to former Iowa City council member Bob Elliott and he was supportive of candidates Armstrong, Cooper, Dorau, and Johnson. A former school administration professor on my other side, Arnold Lindeman liked candidates Cooper, Dorau, and Swisher.
At this time, I will limit my endorsement to only one of the candidates. I feel that over a four year term a lot of things can and will change. What I hang my endorsement on is what has a person done in the past, how successful have they been in pushing for change, and their willingness to stand in the face of adversity. In my estimation, only Sarah Swisher has demonstrated the experience, pragmatism, and toughness to work well with this board to really prioritize needs and creatively support equity in all the schools which is crucial to the long-term success of all students in the district. I also know that she can arm herself to the teeth with information when needed, as she did when she pushed for "Yes, for Kids."
I note that Mike Cooper has often been a refreshing voice on the current board, e.g., when it has been stalled or when district financials are presented. I wonder if he will hold up for a 4 year term like the last two years, particularly, as he noted candidly "at some point the board has to do it's work." Unfortunately, to do its work, there is some significant fence mending needed with public trust.
With regard to April Armstrong, Tuyet Dorau, Anne Johnson, and Jean Jordison, each has strengths, but each has a different learning curve. Dorau, clearly eloquent and intelligent, will need to bone up on the functions of the board and the process of this type of governance--I suspect reegardless of the outcome, we will see her in the political arena in the future. Armstrong, while clearly a leader in her particular school's PTO and a solid communicator, did not impress with her knowledge of the financial aspect of the job. Jordison often the most eloquent about neighborhood schools was also the most noncommittal about her function the board other than to move actions forward. Lastly, Anne Johnson was knowledgeable about achievement, as one would expect from an employee of Pearson Education. If Mike Cooper were not running, I would likely be more supportive as they have similar backgrounds and he has the experience.
Regardless of these observations, I wish all the candidates good luck between now and about 10 pm on election day, September 8th. Given the light turnout that often accompanies this election, the separation between winners and runner-ups may be a handful of votes. You can vote early through Friday at the County auditor's office or go to the website for the polling place nearest you on election day.