Union-backed candidates win many Iowa school board seats

Candidates backed by Iowa’s largest teachers union did well in the first school board elections since Republican lawmakers and the Branstad/Reynolds administration scrapped meaningful collective bargaining rights for public workers.

In the Iowa’s largest county, all of the winners in the Des Moines, Ankeny, Urbandale, and Southeast Polk school districts had been endorsed by locals of the Iowa State Education Association. The Ankeny win was even sweeter because Susan Gentz, backed by some heavy-hitter local Republicans, finished a distant fifth in a race for three at-large seats. In West Des Moines, the local had endorsed all four of the candidates seeking the three at-large seats.

Elsewhere in the Des Moines metro area, union-backed candidates won two of the three Johnston school board seats and one of four at-large seats in the heavily Republican suburb of Waukee. One of the ISEA-endorsed winners in Carlisle, Cody Woodruff, is a sophomore at Iowa State University and replaces Drake University undergraduate Josh Hughes as Iowa’s youngest school board member.

All four school board winners in Iowa City also had the union endorsement. A contentious campaign over a $191.5 million bond issue drove turnout through the roof; 16,700 voters cast ballots, far above the previous record-high turnout of 13,139 for an Iowa City school bond election. The bond passed with about 65 percent support.

Former Democratic State Senator Tom Courtney, a surprise victim of last year’s Republican wave, won a write-in campaign for a school board seat in Burlington. The other seats on that board also went to ISEA-backed candidates.

The ISEA Twitter feed is full of congratulations for candidates who won school board seats in Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Mason City, Ottumwa, Cedar Falls, Linn-Mar (Cedar Rapids suburbs). UPDATE: Candidates backed by the teachers union and Woodbury County Democrats also won school board seats in Sioux City.

In Fairfield, union-backed candidates defeated social conservatives who had campaigned against a district policy allowing students to use the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity. One of those candidates won the at-large seat recently vacated by State Representative Phil Miller. Last month, Miller won an Iowa House special election thanks to a strong turnout in the Fairfield area, despite Republican efforts to demagogue on the transgender bathroom issue.

At least two union-backed candidates won seats on the Des Moines Area Community College Board of Trustees, but former Democratic State Representative Joe Riding fell short in his campaign against an incumbent who had the explicit support of DMACC leaders.

In Ames, where the teachers union did not get behind any of the candidates, three progressives defeated a school board incumbent, Gavin Aronsen reported for Iowa Informer.

A former organizer for Hillary Clinton won a race in Council Bluffs, where the ISEA local didn’t get involved.

I’ve enclosed below the full list of ISEA-endorsed candidates. Any comments about Iowa school board races are welcome in this thread. I’ll update this post as needed.

UPDATE: Some readers have asked whether turnout increased this year, compared to past school board elections. It’s hard to gauge, because most county auditor websites don’t make it easy to find past and present results, and the number of votes for each candidate doesn’t tell you how many voters cast ballots. In most districts, voters were able to vote for two or three school board candidates.

In Polk County (where the auditor maintains a user-friendly website), yesterday’s turnout in several districts looks substantially higher than it was for the 2015 school elections. On the other hand, some competitive races drove a lot of voters to participate in the 2013 school elections.

Looking at the results from around the state, it seems clear that progressive voters (some mobilized by labor unions) turned out in larger numbers than usual. A reader informed me that two Democrats won school board seats in Clarinda, adding, “That is unheard of” for the community in deep-red Page County. These races are non-partisan, but Democrats made a concerted effort in many communities to elect like-minded people.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price pointed to that trend in this statement released on September 13.

“We want to extend our heartfelt congratulations to all the Democrats and progressive Iowans who earned a place on their local School Boards last night. These dedicated Iowans will help fight for our teachers, our schools, and – most importantly – our students and their futures.

Yesterday, Iowans also voted to reject the backwards policies of the Iowa GOP and Kim Reynolds. Nearly every union-backed candidate, even when facing incumbents, succeeded last night – demonstrating that Iowans do not support the dangerous changes made to our collective bargaining laws. We also saw voters in Fairfield once again reject divisive attacks on transgender students.

Across the state, we saw Iowans stand up for public education. These victories are owed to local organizing and neighbor-to-neighbor outreach, and this is only the beginning. Democrats are ready to win at the municipal level this November, then take back seats from the Statehouse to the Courthouse in 2018.”

Turnout for the 2018 county-level and state legislative races will be much higher overall, so it’s far from clear that backlash over the collective bargaining bill will have the same impact on voting behavior a year from now. But as Pete Buttigieg argued during his recent Iowa visit, winning local elections can be a building block for success statewide. In addition, today’s newly-elected school board members may become strong candidates for the Iowa House or Senate in a few years.

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.

  • School board elections.

    If what follows has already been covered earlier in the year, apologies.. I seem to recall a state proposal to elect school boards in regular November elections in the future — has that proposal been passed? And if so (and also if not, I guess), what impact might that have on school board election results?

    • you are correct

      That was part of the elections bill that also included voter ID requirements. But that portion of the bill won’t go into effect until 2019. This is the last year that school board elections will be held in September.

      • Thank you!

        I appreciate that information. So obviously my question won’t be relevant for a couple of years. But I’d still be interested in whether you think making school board elections part of the November elections may change their dynamics and results. For example, a friend in Ames wonders if the three progressive candidates who won there yesterday might not have fared as well if they had been running as part of a general election.

        • It will probably hurt

          Just my opinion, but that change will probably hurt, because with September elections largely those dedicated to public education turned out to vote. Putting it in November will make the election vulnerable to whatever hot issues are out there. And that’s probably why the Republicans made the change in the law.

          • Thank you

            That does make sense. .

            • Nitpick

              Combining city and schoiol elections did pass last session, but it was in a seperate bill from teh voter ID bill.

              I wrote about this as it was getting debated. It’s not going to save money: at best the combined election will cost about the same as the two different elections. It’ll cause a lot of complications in programming and in pollworker training.

              But the real agenda: it’s going to force cities and counties to compete with each other on money issues on the same ballot – and when two issues compete, people are more likely to say no to both.

              I will admit, though, after Tuesday I will not miss explaining to people that school polling places are different than regular polling places.

  • Unions or Schools?

    When a candidate is endorsed by numerous unions, it gives me pause. Certainly staff should be involved in decisions regarding schools in that it is their jobs. Certainly the actions of the legislatures this year deserve strong union reaction. But, schools exist to prepare young people to become engaged, productive, and capable contributors to society as they age. How teachers got treated seemed to be more important in the campaigns, though. For this election, nobody I talked with had anything to say about the candidates, so I went back to notes I made four years ago. Then, I could find nothing of note about what the candidates felt schools should be. My observations also noted the questions asked of candidates did not seem suited to finding out the core beliefs of the candidates. Questions were better this year, but the answers I caught were all platitudes and very little, if anything, of substance. Government uses schools to deliver a plethora of programs because that is where the children are. But those programs do not really reflect what schools should be, and the candidates in Des Moines historically do not seem to know what schools should be either – except all encompassing, greatly funded, and offering good jobs at good wages. I voted, but I did not come away feeling positive for the future of students.

  • What I would liked to have heard

    I would have been encouraged by a candidate who said something such as, “My purpose for running is to provide a solid education for our youth. Focused teachers and other staff are an important part achieving that goal. I understand the new legislation curtailing collective bargaining is discouraging many of our teachers. I will work with the unions to be sure our schools’ staff remain pleased to be serving our students.”