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Editorial: We need school boards focused on service, not a political agendas

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Mason City schools mask mandate - opposed

A Mason City man who declined to give his name holds a sign opposing mask mandates as he sits in the audience during the Sept. 20 Mason City school board meeting.

School board elections are important. But not so much because board members have been in the public eye more than usual the past three school years while trying to serve many masters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’re important because these volunteers are responsible for so much more year in and year out, all the puzzle pieces that are assembled to do no less than help the next generation of Iowa adults learn how to read, to solve problems, to work together, to lead.

Of course, much of the job deals with more pragmatic and still critically important concerns: ensuring children get to and from school safely, managing property and being good stewards of taxpayers’ money.

It’s heartening to see robust slates of nominated candidates for the Nov. 2 elections.

But it’s also difficult to ignore the context of raw conflict over COVID-19 policies toward the board members who set those policies. Or Gov. Kim Reynolds’ endorsement of a candidate for school board and her use of the occasion of a political fundraiser to tell supporters to “treat this November like it’s next November.”

Some candidates are emphasizing their stances on specific policies, especially toward mask mandates, rather than a vision for educational excellence in their communities. Their arguments are ideological, not aspirational.

Iowa has been served well by its tradition of distinguishing city and school elections from statewide, legislative and county contests by dispensing with party affiliations for most local forms of government.

Nobody would argue that a person’s political philosophy is irrelevant to setting school policy, and there’s nothing novel about Republicans and Democrats advocating for board candidates and celebrating or bemoaning vote results. But while Reynolds has the right to speak her mind, she would be wise to exercise more discretion in the example she sets and be mindful that less than two years ago, her party was proposing legislation to bar partisan expenditures advocating for school board candidates.

The experience of people who oversee districts illustrates that the nonpartisan distinction is worthwhile.

“I think that the the No. 1 thing a person has to have in mind is that, if elected, they are there to serve their community and their school, both,” Teresa Coenen of Woodbine told an editorial writer on Friday. “They’re not there to further a personal agenda. They’re not there to further the personal agenda of anybody else.”

Coenen has spent about four years on the school board in her western Iowa hometown and is also a board member of the Iowa Association of School Boards. She ran for office a few years after retiring from her career as a school administrator.

There’s no prerequisite for expertise to join a school board, and that’s as it should be. Iowans with little or no experience in education or government can serve capably — if, and it’s a big if, they put in the work.

“It’s not a piece-of-cake job,” Coenen said. “There’s a lot of research, there’s a lot of reading. There’s a lot of time spending on your own personal development to learn things. And I think as long as people have that in mind, and couple that with knowing that you’re there to serve, I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity for anybody to help their districts.”

The Iowa Association of School Boards and other organizations provide resources to bring directors up to speed on a “very challenging business model and operation model.”  

Coenen said her work in Woodbine has been satisfying. She was excited to share about a regional STEM learning center that Reynolds, Sen. Joni Ernst and other officials will help celebrate this month, and about a new self-paced learning approach in the district that lets “students get the help when they need help” and “fly when they can fly.”

We hope those are the kinds of outcomes that candidates and voters want to bring about where they live, too, starting with the nonpartisan elections Nov. 2.

Effective boards, Coenen said, concentrate on setting effective policies: “That’s our only job, and then let the professionals do their job.”

So as you research candidates before casting your votes, beware of candidates who spend most of their time talking about masks, certain curricula or other ideological agendas, whichever side they align with.

Look for people who see the job as public service, shaping broad policies that will best prepare the next generation of Iowans to learn and lead.

This editorial first appeared in the Des Moines Register and it reprinted with permission here.

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