116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
How can we ensure that Iowa schools survive and thrive? Vote for school board members for the their character and qualifications - not their political affiliation
A narrow wooden board hung on a hook just inside Mr. Bruhn’s office in my old junior high school. “Board of Education” was printed neatly on the paddle. Being a good little rule follower, the play on words was lost on me. I remember my mother explaining the concept of an actual school board and the rather sinister meaning of the pun. Unfortunately, I still think of that hunk of wood whenever I see notice of a school board election. Fortunately for today’s students, corporal punishment is now against the law in Iowa, but the importance of a good school board still is alive and well.
School board elections in Iowa will be held the first week in November. Many Iowans snooze through these off year elections, but the resulting low voter turnout belies the importance of electing the best people to lead our schools. If you live in a small town, you understand 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.
Iowans continue to value their hometown schools. “Be True to Your School” still is an old-fashioned but apt refrain and school loyalty is strong. Our schools are not perfect, but, by golly, they are ours and the backbone of our little communities. Old-timers have been known to state,“ So goes the school, so goes the town.” And you know what? They were and are absolutely correct.
A school in your small community provides employment for teachers and administrators, bus drivers, cooks, custodians, paraprofessionals, and coaches. It generates income for local businesses like the hometown grocery store, gas stations, insurance companies, electricians, plumbers, and mechanics. The school bolsters our public libraries and works cooperatively with our churches, scouts, and other organizations.
The school is a wonderful source for social activities in our tiny communities — from football games and fall suppers to thrilling basketball games and wrestling meets. Don’t forget Grandparents’ Day at the elementary or the much beloved Christmas, oops — winter music programs. The community supports summer baseball and softball games while long Iowa winters are enlivened by high school concerts, plays, and musicals.
Most importantly, our local school districts have educated hundreds and hundreds of students. Our schools accept all learners and work with them tirelessly to become literate, thoughtful, and well- rounded citizens. Now some say our tiny local schools don’t offer all the benefits of larger neighboring districts. Small rural schools may not have all the advanced classes or robotics courses, but as a former teacher, I know our students benefit from small class sizes and the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities even if they aren’t elite athletes or stellar students. There is a certain kind of satisfaction in knowing that a student in a small school isn’t always required to go through tryouts to make the football team; every warm body in pads is welcome and helps make it possible to field a team. Those lessons that come from playing sports — teamwork, hard work, and perseverance — benefit all students. One former teaching colleague of mine, who also coached football, once quipped, “Sometimes Johnny needs football more than football needs Johnny.” I regret that my grandchildren who will attend school in large cities won’t have that same school experience. Small town schools tend to foster a unique type of unconditional community support which provides a sense of security and worth to our young scholars.
I’ve experienced a rural school as a student, parent and a sixth grade teacher. I’m clear-eyed about its strengths and haven’t been shy about saying how I think it could be improved, but I firmly believe we need to support our schools. Like the old-timers said, if we don’t, our community will not thrive.
So, how can we ensure that our schools survive and thrive? This fall let’s start by electing new school board members like we always have done in the past. Vote for the person’s character and qualifications and not their political affiliation. Vote for people who first and foremost keep the best interests and safety of the students in mind. Choose someone who respects the administrators and teachers and trusts these professionals to do what they do best. Vote for a person who is knowledgeable about school issues and will be transparent with the district patrons about safety, staffing, curriculum, and financial concerns. Vote for a candidate with a long view designed to keep our schools strong and vibrant.
Think carefully about voting for people with a particular ax to grind about some controversial issue. It worries me that this type of candidate might have a narrow focus and may lose interest in their board service once the commotion fades.
In these turbulent times, know that if quality school board members are berated or harassed about difficult decisions made during trying times, other excellent potential candidates will be reluctant to run. I was at a gathering a few weeks ago when the topic turned to local school board elections. After a gentleman was asked if he had considered running, he responded, “So I can worry about being shot as I walk down the street?” He was being facetious, and we all chuckled, but his answer was telling. We need to guard against our school boards becoming partisan forums and remember that negative comments about our schools will have unfortunate ripple effects for the entire community.
I’m not apologizing for staying true to my small school. Our community, like many other rural towns, depends on our local schools to be successful. Let’s keep our schools strong by keeping politics out of school board elections. Choose the prudent, thoughtful candidate who keeps his or her focus on what is best for the entire student body. Think twice before voting for a candidate bent on promoting a narrow political agenda. Our students and communities need and deserve the best school board members.
School board elections in Iowa will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 2, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. I encourage you to make a well-considered choice when it comes to marking your ballot. Make that extra effort to vote and stay true to your school.
Betsy Pilkington is a retired sixth grade teacher from the English Valleys School District in North English.