Corridor school board elections disrupt status quo

Voters looked for new direction, candidates say

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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Phil Hemingway ran for the Iowa City Community School District’s school board in 2011 and 2013, he came up short by about 100 votes each time.

But in Tuesday’s election, Hemingway — an auto repair business owner who regularly criticizes the district’s administration at school board meetings — came out a victor.

Hemingway’s success this year was not unique.

In school board elections across Linn and Johnson counties Tuesday, several incumbents lost their seats, in some cases by wide margins. Current board members in Cedar Rapids, Center Point-Urbana, Linn-Mar, Marion, Mount Vernon and Solon were defeated.

And in Iowa City, where four incumbents chose not to run again and a fifth resigned, some of the most successful candidates were those most critical of the current school board and administration.

“There was a lot of success for candidates who were not portraying themselves as rubber stamps or status quo candidates,” Hemingway said.

“The community was looking for someone to ask the tough questions of administration, not to just be a rubber stamp or another nodding head,” he added.

Tom Yates, a retired teacher and former teachers union president who also won a seat on the Iowa City board, agreed.

“There’s been a certain amount of mistrust, not necessarily toward the board but the board’s lack of control over the administration,” he said.

An anti-status quo sentiment also seemed to affect the Cedar Rapids school board race, where challengers Rafael Jacobo and Kristin Janssen won four-year terms, knocking off incumbents Allen Witt and Ann Rosenthal.

Janssen finished first in a four-way race for two at-large seats. She said she hoped her success was due to her positions on education issues, such as supporting students who do not plan to attend four-year college.

“I do recognize that some of it may be the fact that I was not an incumbent,” she said Wednesday. “And that the district might be ready for change and a new direction.”

Voter frustration over state funding for education could have affected local school board races, as well, Yates said.

To address that, Hemingway said, new board members can focus on making school district spending efficient, in addition to pressing for more state funding.

“Advocate, yes,” he said. “Go to Des Moines and lobby, yes. But what can I really do is I can focus 100 percent on what I have control over.”

Voters’ feelings about other state- and federal-level education issues also might have affected local races, said Pete Clancy, the vice president of the Cedar Rapids Education Association.

“The overreliance of standardized testing might be a great example of that,” Clancy said. “We did have candidates say that our kids are taking too many tests, when really that is a state or federal mandate.”

The Cedar Rapids Education Association recommended Jacobo and Janssen, as well as incumbent John Laverty, in this year’s election. Clancy said the candidates’ incumbent or challenger status had nothing to do with the union’s recommendations.

Yates said the new Iowa City board might be more representative of community concerns.

“This is not going to be a status quo board for the most part,” Yates said. “The hope is, then, that things will get better.”

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