116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Melissa Walker, candidate for Linn-Mar Community School Board at-large
Oct. 20, 2021 6:05 pm
Melissa Walker, Geralyn Jones, Kara Larson, Cara Lausen, Matt Rollinger and Rachel Wall are running for three at-large seats on the Linn-Mar Community School District Board. The Gazette has not yet received responses from Jones. ► Get to know the other school board candidates
Name: Melissa Walker
Office sought: Linn-Mar Community School Board at-large
Age: 42 (born March 8, 1979)
Occupation: Director of philanthropy at Tanager Place
Campaign website: facebook.com/mwalkerforLM
Have you held office before? If so, what office did you hold? This would be my first publicly elected office. However, I have served on numerous community and state boards, including executive officer roles of president, vice president, secretary and treasurer positions within these boards.
Personal bio: I am a mom, wife and passionate Linn-Mar community member. My husband, Todd, is a graduate of Linn-Mar, and is now in his 20th year of teaching for the district. We are the proud parents of two amazing teens at LMHS, Kaden (12th) and Ty (10th). Our family’s activities typically involve running, church, baseball, and music.
Education is critically important to our family. One of my core values is giving back to my community to help children be successful. To this end, I earned a BA in psychology and an MS in Organizational Management and Leadership. I began my career at the Area Substance Abuse Council (ASAC) as a Prevention Specialist supporting youth, schools and communities. I also served as Prevention Director and Deputy Director at ASAC. In 2020, I was honored to begin serving at Tanager Place as Director of Philanthropy. I continue to be actively involved in the Linn-Mar district and community through numerous volunteer roles and community boards.
Why are you seeking a seat on the school board?
I’m passionate about bringing people together to help our children and families succeed. The division facing our district is disheartening and I want nothing more than for our community to come together to create a successful educational environment for all children. I will use my voice to speak up for those who may not be able to advocate for their own educational success, while continuing the great work our district has traditionally done to serve our young people.
I don’t do well sitting on the sidelines when the children and families of our community, for whom I care deeply, need help. I see firsthand the growing needs of our district. Marginalized groups of students need a voice willing and able to stand up for them. Youth from low and middle-income families need someone who will advocate for equal opportunities to participate in activities across our district. Students, teachers, and parents alike need someone ready to listen effectively and give them a voice in decisions impacting education. Paraeducators and associates need someone to fight for a livable wage.
I will be a true partner with both parents and the district in meeting all areas of need at all levels in our district, including mental well-being, as none of us can succeed without a culture, climate and resources that enhance our well-being. I look forward to serving the Linn-Mar community in this important way!
How do you rate the district’s current performance? What areas are going well, and what could be improved?
I believe the absolute best part of Linn-Mar is our people, from the caring custodians who always stop to give students a high-five, to the teachers who go out of their way to check in on a student having a rough day. In addition, Linn-Mar's spring 2021 data from the Iowa Statewide Assessments showed the district outperformed the state average in all three core academic areas of language arts, math and science.
One of the strengths of being a large district is the abundant activities we offer, from esports, Social Justice Club, National FFA Organization, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes to some of the strongest athletic and music programs in the state. These can help each child develop a sense of connection and belonging.
While we continue this great work, one area to improve is communication. Linn-Mar has grown rapidly and the communication systems have not kept up. It is time to invest in staff and systems to support more comprehensive and consistent communication strategies to keep parents informed and involved in their children’s educational journey.
It is important for us to pay attention to children falling through the cracks during this growth. We have services and supports in place for many, but other needs go unmet — academically, emotionally, and more. We need to do a better job meeting the needs of children of color, LGBTQ+ populations, children experiencing mental health challenges, and those just needing support to navigate their academic paths.
What are the three largest issues facing the school district and what will you do to address them?
1. Agility to meet the growth needs of our evolving and growing student body. As our district continues to change, I will advocate for resources needed for success of all students, such as English Language Learner programs, fair access to activities for all income levels, career readiness services for the trades and other alternatives to college, and student assistance programs.
2. Workforce recruitment and retention. As the “baby boomer” generation leaves the workforce, we are left with a significantly smaller number of upcoming employees to fill these positions. This change is complicated by the COVID global workforce shortage and our current reality that Paraeducators and Associates can make more money working at McDonald’s. I will advocate for appropriate class sizes, competitive salary and benefit packages, accountability for maintaining a safe, inclusive, and trauma-informed employment environment, and promotion of more proactively inclusive hiring practices.
3. Student mental well-being. Children cannot succeed academically without receiving care for their emotional health. A study on children and adolescents published in August 2021, JAMA Pediatrics describes, “The prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 have doubled, compared with pre-pandemic estimates.” I will advocate for increased mental well-being services offered in schools and formally request increased community partnerships with experts in this field.
What level of local control do you think school boards should have?
I think it is important for state and federal governments to provide overarching guidelines and recommendations for public school system standards, which will ensure consistency across all systems. This will ensure the standards and bench marks for what should be taught, and the basic level of knowledge to be expected, remain consistent across the state for all students.
I feel how those standards are achieved, as well as the rules and regulations necessary to fulfill an effective learning environment, should be made by local school boards, teachers, administrators, and parents that represent our district. It is essential that districts have the flexibility to meet the established guidelines in the best way possible to meet needs of our community.
What will you do to be responsive to concerns by parents, students and staff? What type of communications should they expect from you?
I value transparency, and believe it is important to move toward a more unified district. When concerns are brought to my attention, I commit to being respectful in listening and seeking to understand the concern. It is important for parents, students, and staff to all understand the various points of data that must be taken into consideration for decisions and be transparent with that information when a vote is cast during board meetings. Board members must be willing to hear community concerns, as well as share the “why” behind our perspectives. I truly believe when we take the time to listen to one another, there is more that we can find to agree on than the few areas we choose to disagree.
I think it is important to gather information before making decisions or reacting to a concern; therefore, I would continue to use the approach I have used during this campaign period to dig deeper into concerns that may be a school board issue to determine the appropriate response. At times, information gathered may need to be shared through the board president to comply with board policy or kept confidential due to privacy concerns.
I would continue to use this same model for other concerns brought to my attention. If it is something that is clearly a building level concern, I will link the individual to the appropriate personnel and assist in making that connection if they would like for me to do so.
Should school districts be allowed to enact a mask requirement for students during the COVID-19 pandemic? If yes, what type of masking requirement would you want to see in place?
It is a responsibility of school districts to ensure a safe learning environment for all students. I believe these districts should have the authority to carry out rules that enforce the recommendations of the experts (including the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Linn County Public Health) on what is necessary to create and maintain that safe school environment.
These requirements are established by districts to ensure ALL students can be safe and are helping mitigate the spread of a disease that now killing not just the elderly, but young people as well.
I support school district authority to enact mask requirements for students during the COVID-19 pandemic when those requirements align with recommendations from medical experts. School district members do not typically have medical degrees, so they should not be making decisions without input and guidance from these experts. We need the advice of those experts to guide us in determining when masks are needed and when they aren’t. My preference would be to maintain consistency with the CDC and/or American Academy of Pediatric guidelines, so our district is not making decisions about medical issues that do not align with expert advice.
If you were required to cut the district’s budget, what areas would you look to for savings and why?
School finances are a complicated discussion, as there are multiple “buckets” in which money both comes into the district and ways in which the district can spend these funds. When looking at funding cuts, it is important to know that in most situations, money from one bucket cannot be used to fund another. For example, Linn-Mar currently has a strong general operations fund, but a significant deficit in the special education fund. The shortfall in the special education fund is due to services we are legally required to provide, but the federal government has not reimbursed for at an appropriate rate. We are unable to draw funds from the general operations budget to pay for the special education fund deficit.
If budget cuts were necessary, the first step would be to determine which funds, or buckets, needed to be cut and what flexibility there is across funds to support those needs. My priorities will always remain what is best for our children’s educational success. To be successful academically, they also need key support services to support their mental well-being, career readiness, and other wrap-around care. I would next look at what expenses have the potential to be supported through other revenue, such as grant or fundraising support. I believe people are more important to our students’ success than things. I would advocate to find reductions in supply and operational costs wherever possible before any program or staffing cuts were implemented.
Are there curriculum concerns that you have with the district? What are they? What process should the district use to address the concern?
The district has invested in specialized curriculum advisers with the responsibility of overseeing a team involved in the research, assessment, and selection of appropriate curriculum. While I trust these experts, I recognize there are growing concerns around transparency and clarity of what is being taught and how, particularly with sensitive topics. My goal will be to improve consistency across the district on how these sensitive topics are taught and increase proactive communication to parents on when, why, and how these topics will be addressed. I believe these steps are critical in finding common ground and mutual understanding.
I am concerned about the social-emotional elements of learning, which often extend beyond the formal curriculum. This includes critical conversations that result in understanding and embracing differences among peers, enhancing and supporting youth mental well-being, and other issues that help all students feel safe and welcome at Linn-Mar. The rise in youth mental health concerns is evidence of the growing need to further develop this area of student learning and support.
Finally, there is a need to improve the communication on how student success is evaluated in order for parents to partner in their child’s education more effectively. Standards based grading is confusing for parents and needs clarification. Alternative assessment methods may also be useful for parents to measure their child’s progress in the curriculum standards.