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School Board candidates discuss transparency, enrollment

BY BRITTANY TREVICK | SEPTEMBER 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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Ten candidates from the Iowa City area are running for five positions on the Iowa City School Board. Different issues discussed throughout the campaign have been transparency, merit pay, redistricting and the importance of similar educational quality. The election will take place today in numerous locations.

Jeff Alden

Jeff Alden decided to run for the School Board after learning from his wife about what happened at the redistricting meetings earlier this year.

“I think there was a lot of anger and a lot of fury,” he said. “I thought it was a lot of pain and agony with results I can’t make much sense of.”

The Army veteran said transparency on the School Board is vital.

“I think the mistrust, the sense of betrayal and the sense of the School District not caring about the folks if they don’t have an Iowa City address [comes from a lack of transparency].”

Adding and retaining schools is another important issue for the doctor and physician. Alden is in favor of building a fourth high school as soon as possible and is against closing Hills Elementary.

“I think schools should be built,” he said. “We don’t need to wait for numbers to get started since we have money in the SILO fund and it’s only going to get more expensive.”

This would help the overcrowding at West, because it would pull some of its numbers down, although, for him, the high numbers are not as big of a problem.

The 48-year-old said his psychiatry training and years in Iraq gave him the experience he needed to be a beneficial member of the School Board.

Alden has four children in the school district.

Karla Cook
Education has been a part of Karla Cook’s entire life, whether she was attending school or preparing to teach.

This experience, she said, gives her an edge over those not involved in education.

“This position is going to need someone who knows something about the School District, someone who has contacts and can function quickly,” she said. “I can jump in a little faster than the average person in the district.”

As a teacher for 29 years, she said, she is not in favor of teachers being paid by merit pay, because that involves payment based on students’ test scores, which doesn’t promote collaborative teaching.

“That opens up a big can of worms,” she said. “It kind of leads to competition. In the sales world that’s a good thing; in the education world, that’s not.”

The 65-year-old said transparency is an important issue for her.

“I think anybody in the School District and the community should be able to say, ‘I know what’s happening with my school board,’ ” she said. “ ‘I know where the money is going … and I know who is in charge.’ ”

Cook retired from teaching in 2007; she has two children in the district. She is running for a two-year position.

Patti Fields

Patti Fields has a passion for the Iowa City community. It’s the driving force behind her desire to retain her seat on the School Board.

“[The community] is my motivational driver,” she said.

The current president of the School Board said she is not disappointed with anything that has happened while she has been a member of the board, but there are things that could have been done differently.

“There are times we have been in more of a reactive mode than in a planning mode,” said the mother of two.

The 38-year-old said redistricting school boundaries needs to be reviewed annually. She said the last redistricting process took so long because it hadn’t been done for a very long time, because the redrawing only occurred when a new school opened.

“It was a long process and really brought up a lot of feelings in the community,” she said. “It was the first step [and] I don’t think we’re done.

There is a possibility of five new members joining the School Board. The vice president for the Community Impact and Engagement at the United Way of Johnson County said this could be both bad and good.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to get some fresh ideas and fresh perspective,” she said. “[But] I think it will be a challenge at times just because there is a lot of information and the learning curve to coming on to the board … takes a while.”

Phil Hemingway

Phil Hemingway’s first participation with the School Board involved a principal he felt was receiving poor treatment.

After that, he was hooked.

“I saw how the board was handling issues coming before it; it kept me staying at the meetings and getting more and more interested,” he said. “I’ve felt we could do better.”

Two years later, Hemingway is now running for a board position.

A big problem the 51-year-old had with the past board was with the handling of the lead paint at Mann Elementary.

“We have to follow safety regulations and guidelines, and we’re doing a terrible job of it,” he said. “We’ve got to get a grip on that for the sake and the safety of our students and our teachers.”

The owner of Phil’s Repair noted how crucial transparency is for the School Board.

“For far too long our district has had a kind of philosophy that if we ignore problems, they will go away, [that] they are only problems if we discuss them,” he said. “No. We’ve got some issues in our district that we need to take care of.”

Hemingway said he hoped that with the new members elected to the board, this philosophy will change.

Hemingway has one daughter in the district, who acts as his campaign manager.

Sally Hoelscher

Sally Hoelscher described herself as an advocate for children.

“[The School Board] is a pretty good fit for my experience as a parent and a long-term volunteer for school and education,” she said.

The freelance writer described the recent budget errors as a fireable offense.

“The $2.5 million — that’s a major error, and the fact that because of that error in April, there was talk of letting go 22 teachers,” she said. “If that had happened, that would have been a major thing. All of that stress that was gone through was completely unnecessary.”

The 46-year-old also mentioned transparency as something she finds important.

“I think that being transparent helps to earn the public trust,” she said. “And it also serves as a check for there are some citizens out there who will go over everything with a fine-tooth comb, and if there is a mistake, they will find it.”

The mother of two children in the district said she doesn’t believe a fourth high school should be created, because the projected numbers for students don’t support it and also because some education experts predict that high-school education will change in the next 10 to 15 years.

“If you think about the world in the last 50 years and how much it has changed and yet the way we teach as remained the same,” she said. “So, I think this is an opportunity for Iowa City to explore some of those innovative options and to be a leader.”

Jeffrey McGinness

Jeffrey McGinness is a product of the School District. The schools are one of the reasons he moved his family from Naperville to Iowa City.

“[I’m] someone who is really passionate about the education I got here, and [I] really love Iowa City schools,” he said.

The lawyer said he was frustrated by all of the negativity regarding the redistricting process. For McGinness, it could have gone better.

The 36-year-old said better communication could have smoothed out the process. Instead of first hiring a consultant, the School Board should have gathered community input.

“When they did it backwards, in my mind, people became much more sensitive to it and reacted,” he said.

McGinness said transparency on a School Board is beneficial because it can prevent the same problem from occurring twice.

“When issues arise you want to know what happened and why and who was responsible to be sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

McGinness has three children who will go through the district. He said that even if he is not elected, the board needs to learn to have be more positive.

“I think regardless of who gets on the board, whether it’s me or someone else, they need to look at the issues we have as opportunities and not challenges,” he said. “They also need to understand that they are going to disagree from time to time and not take it personally, as some people have in the past. They should look forward into the future and not rehash.”

Robert Porter

Robert Porter laughed when he spoke about the how the Iowa City School Board handled the lead paint issue at Mann Elementary School.

“It was handled poorly,” he said. “It was handled to the point that the proper information wasn’t conveyed to us at a board meeting. It was told to us that there was acceptable limits when, in fact, they knew it was unacceptable.”

The safety specialist and former district employee said he is unique because he believes the School Board has never had a member with a background similar to his. Porter also worked at a physical plant.

The 50-year-old stressed the importance of transparency, especially in regards to the budget.

“I think in the past we’ve seen the district take things at face value and not really question some of the spending habits that have occurred,” he said. “Also, we need to have the budget set forth and better arranged so that people like myself and the general public can actually read what is there and understand where the money is going.”

Porter had two stepchildren go through the School District.

Marla Swesey

Marla Swesey has a love for public education.

The former teacher taught in the Iowa City area for 26 years and decided to run for the School Board in order to continue helping students.

“I had felt a long time ago that it would be a good transition from going to teaching in dealing with more educational issues that would help students,” she said.

Swesey said she felt transparency is a huge issue on the School Board as people need to be able to trust each other.

“Everyone in the district needs to have trust in what the School District is doing,” she said. “It’s been a mess. It’s very important to have as much transparency as possible.”

The 57-year-old suggested a cleaner School Board web page and streamlined board meetings as ways to increase transparency and trust throughout the community. She also suggested public forums as a way to better communicate with others.

But the No. 1 priority for Swesey is the students, and she called the 0 percent allowable growth a tragedy.

“I think the biggest issue is putting students first,” she said. “I truly want to make sure every decision really puts students first.”

Swesey had two children go through the district.

Jim Tate

Jim Tate described himself as “absolutely bonkers” in running for the Iowa City School Board.

“It’s a whole lot of grief for no pay,” he said. “[But] there is also the reward of knowing you’re trying to make a difference.”

The East Coast native said he moved to Iowa City because of the high caliber of schools, and he wants to do his part to continue that high level so one day his grandchildren can experience the same thing.

The father of a daughter in the School District said the errors in the budget are a mistake that merits being fired.

“If I made a $2.5 million mistake at my work, I wouldn’t have a job,” he said. If I forgot to pay my taxes for a business, I know I wouldn’t have a job.”

Tate criticized the board for the handling of the lead-paint issue at Mann Elementary.

“I think it was a series of bungled events and part of that falls to the current board members in that they didn’t ask the right questions,” he said. “They did not know you had to have a certification to be able to test the lead paint. That is done by a very fast and quick Google search. There is a lack of due diligence there.”

Tate is an employee of United Natural Foods.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a lawyer. I’m the average father who really wants to get in there and help out,” he said. “I jokingly tell some of my teacher friends that I’m a teacher’s worst nightmare — I’m an involved parent.”

Julie Van Dyke

Julie Van Dyke is no stranger to the Iowa City School Board.

The 45-year-old has been a frequent attendee of the School Board meetings and an advocate for Hills Elementary.

During the redistricting, Van Dyke spoke in front of the board frequently. She said she believes every student should have been given a piece of paper to give to their families so everyone could voice their opinion.

“How dare [the board] decide for everybody based on their own personal opinion of what’s best for everyone and take action based on that,” she said. “Should it evolve into families screaming and teary eyed in huge rooms? No.”

But Hills isn’t the only issue Van Dyke is worried about. She also has ideas about how to fix transparency with the School Board.

She wants to have committee meetings in the evening to allow more people to attend and stream the meetings online and also have documents available in the Iowa City Public Library.

The mother of a son in the district said she is looking forward to the end of the election process.

“This has been the hardest three months ever,” she said. “I can’t wait till this is done. Honestly, nothing will be worse than this. [But] I’m excited about all I’ve learned and excited about all of the interactions I’ve had with people. This has been meaningful to all of us.”

No matter the outcome of the elections, Van Dyke said, she will continue to attend meetings, — just as it was before the campaign.


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