Ending 'ugly' school board meetings priority for Iowa City candidates

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IOWA CITY — Nearly all the candidates for the Iowa City school board are ready to move on.

From arguments about facilities, from what candidate JP Claussen calls “ugly” board meetings, and away from a district culture state officials describe as “retaliatory.”

“Good leadership starts at the top, and at the top is the board,” candidate Ruthina Malone said during a meeting with The Gazette Editorial Board. “We need to model that we don’t always have to agree, but we can always treat each other with respect.”

“I feel we as a school district have lost our way,” added candidate Laura Westemeyer. She said she decided it was time to run for a board seat because “it was time to help the community … find its way again.”

“If we don’t start rebuilding that trust, it will make everything else harder,” said Janet Godwin, as the Iowa City school district’s other six school board candidates nodded in agreement.

The seven candidates are running for four seats on the school board. Three — Claussen, 44, Malone, 41, Janet Godwin, 51, Westemeyer, 53, or Karen Woltman, 46 — will be elected to four-year terms in the Sept. 12 election. Either Charlie Eastham, 75, or Shawn Eyestone, 45, will win a two-year term.

Winners will join incumbents Phil Hemingway, Paul Roesler and Lori Roetlin on the board. Members serve without pay.

On most issues, they said they seem to align with each other.

“I’m optimistic with this group,” Claussen said. “ … I think we can get to a place where five, six, seven of us are on the same page.”

Major issues plaguing the board, which governs the state’s fifth-largest school district of 14,000 students, include a divided and at times combative tone at meetings, candidates said, as well as perceived stifling of public comment and recent state citations over the district’s special education practices.

Before filing to run, Godwin said she tried to persuade others to run but they were incredulous. “That’s the hardest elected official position,” she said people told her.

In addition to electing four new members to the board — no incumbents are running for reelection — voters also will decide whether the district can levy a $191.5 million bond — the largest school bond ever in the state — to complete the district’s master facility plan.

Except for Westemeyer and Woltman, all of the candidates said they support the bond. Westemeyer said she would be more comfortable with a smaller dollar amount; Woltman declined to answer how she would vote on the issue.

“Bad leadership with $191.5 million still is bad leadership,” Westemeyer said. “There are so many challenges with trust. …. We don’t get a second chance to decide how to spend this money.”

But other candidates said it’s up to voters to elect board members they do trust to manage that sum of money.

Claussen, who narrowly lost a school board special election last August, said the issue voters bring up most often to him is trust.

While that’s sometimes a question directed at Superintendent Stephen Murley, who reports to the board, Claussen and other candidates said addressing dysfunction in the district should start with the board candidates.

“We’ve talked about how the superintendent is the board’s only employee,” said Eyestone, who works as an analytical lab manager. “As a manager, I would be out of a job if I treated my employees like the board treats the superintendent.”

IOWA CITY SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES

Three at-large, 4-year terms

JP Claussen, 44, educator in the inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric unit at the UI Hospitals and Clinics

Janet Godwin, 51, ACT chief operating officer

Ruthina Malone, 41, UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences department administrator

Laura Westemeyer, 53, stay-at-home mom

Karen Woltman, 46, education blogger

One at-large, 2-year term

Charlie Eastham, 75, retired, activist

Shawn Eyestone, 45, analytical lab manager

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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