School boards help Iowa schools survive

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring. 

As Republican presidential wannabes traipse across the countryside, offering 30-second solutions for complex problems, a more immediate election is looming. School board elections on November 7 will help determine whether our community school thrives, suffers, or dies.

Currently, Governor Kim Reynolds and a group of legislative lemmings are committed to creating a two-tiered school system in Iowa, separate and unequal, both funded with public dollars. One tier is used as a political punching bag, has new laws to cope with, accepts all students, and is chronically underfunded. The other tier has funding from a new voucher entitlement, can pick and choose who to accept, and has little to no accountability to taxpayers.

While this two-tier school system isn’t financially feasible long term, Iowans must suffer through this mistake until at least the next legislative election.

That’s why we need to elect school board members who will protect public schools, the foundation Iowa was built upon.

School board elections are among the last nonpartisan political races. We don’t need hard-core Democrats or Republicans running our schools. We need hard-core consensus builders who disagree publicly and privately without being disagreeable. We need board members who are committed to challenging state leaders, and who will put kids and educators first.

Our friends and neighbors who are running for school board deserve gratitude for taking the risk, but they also owe it to the community to answer hard questions.  

Here are some topics to raise with candidates, so communities can create consensus instead of chaos. First, some general questions:

  • When was your last visit to a public school?
  • Why do you want to be on the school board?
  • Are you willing to consistently lobby for increased funding? How would you lobby the state legislature?
  • How would you handle losing an election? 
  • What do you see as the strengths and the weaknesses of the school district?
  • What are your priorities for the district?
  • How will you handle the teacher shortage?
  • How would you handle the paraeducator and substitute shortages?

These questions are related to issues that have been hot topics in the Iowa legislature lately:

  • Do you believe teachers are indoctrinating students? Why or why not?
  • Are you affiliated with any group? If you are, what is the name of the group, and how do you as a candidate differ from the agenda of that group?
  • How do you feel about private school vouchers?
  • Who should determine curriculum content?
  • If there is a complaint about a book in the library or classroom, how would you handle it?
  • How would you get parents more involved in the school?
  • Do you think parents should determine the curriculum?
  • What should the procedure be if a parent has a complaint about curriculum?
  • Do you believe parents are the school district’s customers? Why or why not?
  • How would you handle a complaint by a parent about a school employee?
  • How would you handle a complaint by a school employee about another employee?
  • How will you work as a team with the other school board members?
  • Define “woke.”

Carefully watch how a candidate campaigns. If the person attacks the school district about one specific issue and never goes beyond that attack to discuss other matters, you have an “axe to grind candidate.” They focus only on one narrow issue and never look at the whole district. Once their axe is ground, they have little to offer.

Also important: follow the money. It’s surprising how much money is spent on some school board races. Watch to see what individuals or groups contribute. Look to see who volunteers for the candidate. If it’s not clear, ask the candidate directly. 

Even though the sound and fury of a presidential campaign dominates political news coverage, we owe it to our future to consider the election that will protect our schools.

Top image: Screenshot from video of September 5, 2023 meeting of the Des Moines Public School board meeting.

About the Author(s)

Bruce Lear

  • I wonder...

    ….if anyone asked the new DMPS superintendent these questions?

    • All Supers

      I don’t know what the state superintendent’s organization is saying or doing about the existential threats public schools are experiencing. Yes, ask, the new Des Moines superintendent, but don’t leave him alone to voice opposition of the Republican’s war on schools. The largest 20 school districts teach most of Iowa’s kids. A voice representing 20 districts would be meaningful.

  • A few questions to add--

    Candidates should also be asked

  • how much more extreme does the attack from the top have to get before people wake up?

    I appreciate the effort to get folks involved in vital elections but nostalgia and denial (“School board elections are among the last nonpartisan political races. We don’t need hard-core Democrats or Republicans running our schools.”) aren’t going to meet the demands/threats of the day, Iowa schools came some distance in liberalizing themselves from the good old days (the 90s) when Nikole Hannah-Jones was part of desegregation busing and now there is the Whitelash we are all living under. The government balance sheets won’t save us from this debacle as they will keep shifting dollars from public schools into private, and more importantly undercut the capacity for public schools to keep their doors open. and slowly but surely move us into a world where families have to pay for schools out of pocket. As MLK noted in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to refuse to take sides when you are in a cultural war is to side with the reactionaries.

  • School Board Candidates should also ask

    Do you understand the role of the board is to manage the superintendent, not the other way around?
    What place has technology in schools?
    Do police belong in schools and if your answer is yes, what is the role of police in schools?
    Are you willing to learn more about special education?
    Will you support gifted and talented students? How?

    The “follow the money” is excellent advice.

  • Nice list, Bruce

    I know every election seems like the most important ever, but the elections of 2023 and 2024 are that important. The irony of the Reynolds era is that an organized minority is whipping butt of the disorganized majority. Surely there are a hundred times more parents who see the narrowing of curriculum, the misappropriation of teachers’ discretion, hostility against LBGTQ individuals, and deliberate under-resourcing public education as a threat against their children’s future. But the mass of progressive place holders is not organized, nor enabled with the words and techniques to respond and overwhelm the coward, rightwing who have become the talons of the rich and ambitious.