How can we make sure schools in Iowa survive and thrive? Vote for school board members for character and qualifications – not for political affiliation
A narrow plank of wood hung from a hook just inside Mr. Bruhn’s desk in my old high school. “Board of Education” has been carefully printed on the paddle. Being a good little rule-maker, the pun was lost on me. I remember my mother explaining the concept of a real school board and the rather sinister meaning of the pun. Unfortunately, I still think of that piece of wood every time I see a school board election notice. Fortunately for students today, corporal punishment is now outlawed in Iowa, but the importance of good school counseling is still there.
The Iowa school board elections will be held the first week of November. Many Iowans doze off during these off-year elections, but the resulting low voter turnout belies the importance of electing the best people to run our schools. If you live in a small town, you understand that our schools are the lifeblood of our rural communities, and the people we elect to our school boards play a huge role in keeping our schools strong and vibrant.
Residents of Iowa continue to appreciate the schools in their hometown. “Be loyal to your school” is still an old-fashioned but appropriate refrain and loyalty to the school is strong. Our schools aren’t perfect, but damn it, they’re ours and the backbone of our little communities. We know that the elders said: “So goes the school, so goes the city.” ” And you know what? They were and are absolutely correct.
A school in your small community offers jobs for teachers and administrators, bus drivers, cooks, babysitters, paraprofessionals and coaches. It generates income for local businesses like hometown grocery store, gas stations, insurance companies, electricians, plumbers, and mechanics. The school strengthens our public libraries and works in cooperation with our churches, scouts and other organizations.
School is a wonderful source of social activities in our small communities – from football games and fall suppers to exciting basketball games and wrestling meets. Don’t forget Elementary Grandparents Day or the beloved Christmas, oops – winter music programs. The community supports summer baseball and softball games while Iowa’s long winters are brought to life with high school concerts, plays and musicals.
Most importantly, our local school districts have trained hundreds and hundreds of students. Our schools accept all learners and work tirelessly with them to become literate, thoughtful and well-balanced citizens. Some are now saying that our small local schools do not offer all the benefits of neighboring large districts. Small rural schools might not have all the advanced classes or robotics lessons, but as a former teacher I know our students benefit from small class sizes and the opportunity to participate in even extracurricular activities. ‘they’re not elite athletes or stellar students. There is some satisfaction in knowing that a student at a small school doesn’t always have to go through tryouts to be on the football team; any warm body in leggings is welcome and allows you to field a team. The lessons that come from playing sports – teamwork, hard work and perseverance – benefit all students. A former teaching colleague of mine, who also coached football, once joked: “Sometimes Johnny needs football more than football needs Johnny.” I regret that my grandchildren who will go to school in the big cities will not have the same school experience. Small town schools tend to foster a unique type of unconditional community support that provides a sense of security and worth to our young students.
I experienced a rural school as a sixth grade student, parent, and teacher. I am clear-headed about its strengths and have not hesitated to say how I think it could be improved, but I firmly believe that we need to support our schools. As the elders said, if we don’t do this, our community will not prosper.
So how do we make sure our schools survive and thrive? This fall, let’s start by electing new school board members as we’ve always done in the past. Vote for the character and qualifications of the person, not their political affiliation. Vote for people who have the best interests and safety of students first and foremost. Pick someone who respects administrators and teachers and trusts these professionals to do what they do best. Vote for someone who knows the school’s issues and will be transparent with clients in the district about safety, staff, program, and financial concerns. Vote for a candidate with a long-term vision designed to keep our schools strong and vibrant.
Think carefully about voting for people with a particular purpose to resolve on a controversial issue. It worries me that this type of candidate may have a narrow focus and lose interest in serving on the board once the turmoil subsides.
In these turbulent times, know that if quality school board members are berated or harassed about tough decisions made during tough times, other great potential candidates will be reluctant to come forward. I was at a meeting a few weeks ago when the topic turned to local school board elections. When a man was asked if he had considered running, he replied, “So can I worry about being shot while walking down the street? He was facetious, and we all laughed, but his answer was revealing. We must prevent our school boards from becoming partisan forums and remember that negative comments about our schools will have unfortunate ripple effects for the entire community.
I make no apologies for staying true to my little school. Our community, like many other rural towns, depends on the success of our local schools. Let’s keep our schools strong by keeping politics out of school board elections. Choose the cautious, thoughtful candidate who focuses on what is best for the entire student body. Think twice before voting for a candidate determined to promote a narrow political agenda. Our students and communities need and deserve the best school board members.
The Iowa school board elections will be held on Tuesday, November 2, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. I encourage you to make a thoughtful choice when it comes to marking your ballot. Go the extra mile to vote and stay loyal to your school.
Betsy Pilkington is a retired sixth grade teacher from the English Valleys School District in North English.