Louisa Dykstra for Des Moines School Board

Republican policies on education funding and working conditions for teachers have inspired many newly-engaged Iowa activists to run in tomorrow’s school board elections.

School board members don’t control the budget, but they decide what programs to cut or spare when resources are scarce. They influence contract negotiations, so can mitigate the harm Iowa’s new collective bargaining law will do to educators. Winning non-partisan, local races can also help build the Democratic bench, as many successful candidates for the Iowa House and Senate previously served on a school board.

Turnout for school board elections is typically low in the absence of some hot-button local issue, like this year’s Iowa City school bond proposal. A handful of voters may determine the outcome. Rob Barron won his at-large seat on the Des Moines School Board by just 28 votes in 2013.

Three progressives are seeking the two at-large seats on the Des Moines board this year: the incumbent Barron and first-time candidates Louisa Dykstra and Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley.

I’m encouraging my friends in the Des Moines district to cast one of their votes for Dykstra.

Louisa and I became acquainted through parenting circles thirteen years ago. In support group settings and on Facebook, I’ve noticed her compassion and creative advice for parents who feel overwhelmed or are struggling with their little ones’ challenging behavior.

Our children attend the same school, where Dykstra has consistently been one of the hardest-working parent volunteers while running a business from home. I’ve seen her stay calm and focused during school meetings where conversations grew heated over some of the agenda items. She’s also been a strong voice for installing sidewalks on Windsor Heights streets leading to parks and elementary schools–a surprisingly contentious issue locally.

This past year, she has devoted more of her volunteer energy to education policy work. She wrote in one Facebook post,

I’m running because our schools desperately need board members to be fierce advocates in the community, to be at neighborhood meetings, chamber events, and subcommittee meetings at the legislature, acting as a “sales force” for our schools. I already have a proven track record in this area.

Past board members have shared that the board used to meet with all Polk County legislators every two weeks during the legislative session, on Monday mornings. We need to get back to that level of connection between the board and the legislature, for the sake of our kids and the future of our community.

As a parent volunteer, I have represented Des Moines Schools at several Greater Des Moines Partnership events (the coalition of area chambers of commerce). I attended their legislative breakfast this year and served on their Federal Policy Agenda workgroup.

During the 2017 legislative session, I attended several weekend forums with lawmakers and watched many more online. In those packed rooms, angry constituents often asked hostile questions. They challenged the motives of Republican legislators who had backed destructive bills on collective bargaining, minimum wage, and workers’ compensation benefits. The technique didn’t change any votes and sometimes allowed the Republican to play the victim of conspiracy theories.

Waiting to ask a few questions after one Saturday morning forum, I observed Dykstra lobbying our State Senator Charles Schneider. A bill to allow the Des Moines school district’s separate pension fund to roll into the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System had near-total support in the Iowa House, but Schneider was holding it up in the Senate. My friend made the case for helping a few hundred teachers access a more stable pension fund. She listened and responded to Schneider’s concerns without speaking in an accusatory way.

The conversation didn’t end with the senator agreeing to support the bill, but the door was open. After some time on the “unfinished business list,” the pension fund bill eventually passed unanimously. (In the Iowa legislature, a unanimous vote on final passage sometimes obscures how hard advocates had to work to persuade leaders to bring a bill to the floor.)

Dykstra has been an active volunteer for various Democratic candidates over the past decade. I asked about her experiences talking with Republican lawmakers.

I’ve learned that all politicians respond well to being treated like human beings, and are open to substantive conversations when you take the time to build a relationship. I had a long conversation with Sen. Schneider during the session about growth vs proficiency, debunking the myth that private schools are better. [House Majority Leader Chris] Hagenow and I talked after the session was over about vouchers, making the case in terms of economics for investing in public schools instead.

[State Representative Kevin] Koester said he appreciated the tone of my communication such that he was the only R to attend our DMPS legislative events last session, and agreed to introduce bills on two of our priorities, resulting in the small win of loosening restrictions on preschool dollars (they can now be used for things like translators and snacks). I’m willing to listen to their questions and concerns so we can have a real conversation. At election time we need to make a clear case for the candidates we prefer. When it’s not election time, it’s our responsibility to work with the officials currently in office.

The sad reality is that Republicans have total control of state government. Everyone running for Des Moines school board favors more state support for K-12 education, but I feel Dykstra’s communication skills would be an asset next year, with the budget looking tight and a fight looming over “education savings accounts” (the latest version of Republican voucher dreams).

Dykstra sees her “deep understanding of school finance, regulations, and measurement” as another advantage in the school board race. Last fall, she designed and delivered a workshop on school funding, with help from Iowa School Finance Information Systems. (I enclose that video below.) She has collaborated with Parents for Great Iowa Schools as well.

In this campaign video, she outlined what she sees as the key tasks for the school board: providing vision, high expectations, and resources for the district. The last of those roles is the “most important,” in her view.

And this is where I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding about the role of the school board, because the school board itself does not create money.

So the school board in Iowa is completely dependent on the state setting the spending authority for what the school is allowed to do. So when I talk about the school board providing resources, I’m talking about how we advocate in the community. I think the school board needs to have really close relationships with our legislators, really close relationships with our business community, with people in our neighborhoods that don’t have kids, bringing the community together to understand that what happens in our public schools is what creates our future. That is how we increase the resources that our public schools have to do their jobs.

So a vote for me means you are voting for a fierce advocate for public education, someone who already has a lot of connections within the community, to have the conversation about how we turn the poverty level in Des Moines around, about how we strengthen our schools, and about how we move Des Moines forward.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Barron and Shelley, so whatever happens in tomorrow’s election, students and teachers in Iowa’s largest district will have board members who are passionate about education. As a Des Moines public schools parent, I hope Dykstra will have a seat at that table for the next four years.

P.S.- You can hear more from Dykstra and Barron on Michael Libbie’s “Insight on Business” radio program. (Shelley had a scheduling conflict the day of the taping.)

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