Cheryl Tevis writes Unfinished Business, a weekly Substack newsletter for the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative, where this column first appeared. She is an editor emeritus with Successful Farming at DotDash Meredith, and a contributor to the Iowa History Journal. Cheryl is president of Iowa Women in Agriculture.
My stint on a rural Boone County school board from 1996 to 2005 was no picnic. It was punctuated by controversies over one-way vs. two-way sharing agreements, reorganization votes, and open enrollment petitions. Our board and our new administrator struggled to dig the school out of a financial hole created by a predatory sharing agreement and made worse by the erosion of farm families during the 1980s farm crisis. We worked hard to prevail against a relentless pounding from adverse rural demographic trends.
I’m certain some of the district’s constituents were sorry they ever had voted for me. And as my term ended, personal relationships within our board were strained, and cratering.
Despite these difficulties, what I remember most was the satisfaction of working with our administrator to get our school back on track. We had become mired in a warehouse mentality, just holding our breath until the day the school would be forced to close its doors.
Instead, we pursued a “broken windows” strategy, focusing our energies on hiring the best teachers possible, encouraging them to enrich the curriculum and equip students with a solid foundation of learning. We wanted our school to be a place where all kids, no matter their family backgrounds or educational challenges, felt accepted and cared for. Someday we hoped they’d grow into responsible, informed citizens with fond memories of their schooldays at Grand Community.
But that was a different time. Before the Internet and social media . . . before mask mandates . . . before gender identity and sexuality issues, or critical race theory. Recruiting volunteers to fill open school board seats often was difficult. I never distributed a campaign flyer or posted a yard sign for these low-key, nonpartisan school board elections. And I don’t know anyone else who did.
Recent school board elections are much more competitive. Campaign signs sprout on front lawns and roadsides, and a few local candidates distribute flyers. I’ve seen yard signs posted by neighbors who home-schooled their (now-grown) children!
Earlier this year, I was startled to read in the published board minutes of a neighboring school that 10-15 guests had attended several consecutive meetings. Community engagement in schools generally is positive, but this seemed a harbinger of sorts. Sure enough. Eight candidates are running for three open seats on November 7 in this town of 2,000.
Taking a seat at the table
What’s propelling people to run for this traditionally low-profile, thankless position with little or no pay? As I’ve read the recent series of Des Moines Register school board metro and suburban candidate profiles, four common motivations emerge:
- Teacher recruitment and retention (teacher shortages)
- Growing pains created by rapid population increases.
- Academic achievement gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Improving the lines of communication and restoring trust between school board, parents, and administrators
These closely coincide with the priorities of rural Iowa school board candidates. Teacher recruitment and retention absolutely top the list of challenges at small, rural schools, and are doubly difficult, given budgetary constraints.
But there’s one clear line of demarcation. Rural and small-town school board discussions are dominated by budgetary concerns precipitated by slow-growing or shrinking student populations. On the other side of the coin, so to speak, suburban school board candidates are focused on passing bond issues to accommodate rapidly growing populations.
Closing academic achievement gaps caused by the pandemic seems a shared objective of rural, suburban, and urban school districts. But improving the lines of communication between the board, administration, and parents clearly is a common denominator.
Cooling the rhetoric on hot-button issues
The most significant difference in school board elections today, compared to when I served, revolves around the “culture wars.” Candidates are motivated by specific issues, including book bans, gender identity, whitewashing American history, private school vouchers, coming to the defense of teachers—and more. Most of these issues were manufactured by the Iowa legislature, as well as by outside activist groups like Moms for Liberty.
I don’t ever remember the word “culture” being tossed around like a live grenade at our school board meetings. Our board didn’t spend Open Forum discussing the separation of church and state with parents, or defending our teachers against accusations of “social engineering.”
“Parental rights” weren’t embedded in the educational lexicon. If parents wanted to know more about their children’s curriculum, they attended parent-teacher conferences twice a year, or made an appointment to sit down to talk with their child’s teacher. Parental rights weren’t weaponized by politicians to create wedge issues among voters.
And I never felt students were pawns. At a recent school board candidate open forum, one contender drew a through line from teachers who strayed from reading, writing, and arithmetic into more “philosophical” issues to a veiled threat that if schools didn’t guard against this, they’d lose students to private schools. “The $7,500 vouchers per student makes it an easier decision,” the candidate stated.
The issue of private school vouchers also was raised by Dallas Center-Grimes candidate Amy Dickinson in a recent Des Moines Register article. “We have several families in our district making use of vouchers and enrolling their children elsewhere,” she stated. “The financial impact on our district is undeniable.”
Social media is less civil
Why do Iowans who care deeply about our state’s fading tradition of excellence in education find ourselves in this forsaken landscape riddled with landmines? Three trends are major drivers:
(1) Nationalization of politics
(2) Less local school news coverage, due to a shrinking number of community newspapers
(3) Social media misinformation
This last point is reinforced by Nancy Baker Curtis, a Dallas Center-Grimes school board candidate, who told the Des Moines Register, “Our staff at DCG is amazing,” she stated. “Yet we face issues of distrust. Social media contributes to misunderstanding. Posts create chaos before the administration can respond.”
No doubt the education of our children is an emotional issue: “Our kids are our most prized possessions on the planet, every parent feels that way,” stated one constituent at a recent open forum for local board candidates. “But our trust has been eroded by board secrecy.”
During the forum’s Q & A, board candidates were pressed for a response to the question: “Will you vote the will of your constituents or your own agenda? One candidate questioned the veracity of the 5-0 board votes recorded in published minutes. It was clear that parents often don’t understand the proper channels for bringing personnel complaints forward, or why the board must guard its neutrality to protect the school district from legal ramifications.
This open forum was completely civil. However, I noticed the chat box on its YouTube recording contained frayed threads. For example: “I understand how school board functions, but I disagree with you, so I’m sure you’ll say I’m ignorant.”
Cathleen Kaveny, Boston University professor of law and theology, recently visited Iowa, where she spoke on the topic of civility and the call-out culture in America. She agrees that digital platforms are more likely to lead to incivility, and she cautioned against “treating one another as ‘moral monsters’.”
Are kids simply collateral damage?
Iowa isn’t alone in this trend toward partisan school board elections. According to Ballotpedia, between 2021 and 2023, there were 2,080 elections in which race in education, responses to the pandemic and vaccine mandates, and sex and gender have surfaced as primary issues.
I blame the Iowa legislature and its aggressive initiatives to control teachers, and marginalize students. As of August 30, there were 333 open Iowa teacher positions posted. How much of this shortage has been exacerbated by legislative efforts to undermine the professional stature and respect of our teachers?
Governor Kim Reynolds also deserves criticism. In 2021, she took the unusual stance of endorsing an Ankeny school board candidate who opposed her COVID-19 mask policies for school kids. The FAMiLY Leader recently endorsed four conservative candidates for the Johnston school board—the first time the social conservative organization has endorsed in a local election. The group will send mailers promoting them.
I fear that our kids are simply collateral damage in the political game of scoring points with voters ahead of the next primary election. During the upcoming legislative session, we must demand a return to a focus on the core values of student excellence, reducing class sizes, pre-school for all, and meeting the diverse educational needs of all kids.
After all, what if the real objective is to erode trust and undermine public education, leading to a privatized school system?
Public education is under attack. School board elections must be a priority, and a high turnout can help to moderate the influence of single-issue voters. Please take time to attend forums, watch live-streams, and identify the most qualified candidates. Vote on November 7 as if Iowa’s future citizens depend on your informed decisions and commitment. They do.