Monday, September 4, 2017

Change versus more of the same

I’m a believer in meaningful democratic control of the public school system. I think it’s at the heart of generating good decisions about school policies and practices. At some level I think everyone knows that a big bureaucratic institution, left to run itself without democratic oversight, will not always act in the public interest—even if, like ours, it’s staffed by many good people. The primary role of the elected board is to ensure that the institution belongs to and answers to the public.

There is a real danger, though, of what they call in other contexts “regulatory capture.” Board members—who are unpaid part-time volunteers, after all—come to depend on the administrators who they’re charged with overseeing, and come to rely on them for most of the information they receive. Before long, it can start to seem like the board is working for the administration, rather than the other way around. It can be uncomfortable for a board to exercise real oversight over the people it works with all the time, just like supervising any employee can sometimes require hard conversations. But if board members back away from that responsibility, the public interest suffers.

What I want for this district is a board that’s willing to exercise that responsibility, even when it’s uncomfortable. I believe our current board has failed in that task. The clearest demonstration of that was the board’s decision last October to extend the superintendent’s contract out to three years and to give him the largest raise in the district and to commit to another large raise the following year—at a time when the district had experienced serious problems with legal non-compliance and also with its culture and climate. (See this post.) There should not be such a disconnect between the board’s oversight of the administration and the reality of the district’s performance.

So my main criteria for choosing candidates is whether I think they will change this pattern—whether they will withstand the subtle and overt pressures to take a hands-off approach to oversight. In my judgment, the candidates who are most likely to take administrative oversight seriously are Karen Woltman, Laura Westemeyer, JP Claussen, and, for the two-year seat, Charlie Eastham.

I’m not saying that the candidates have to be pitchfork-wielding revolutionaries. Karen Woltman, for example, is as judicious, considerate, and reasonable as anyone you’ll meet. But she knows how to think critically about a proposal and how to withstand the pressure to join a bandwagon, as she showed when she was sole dissenter on the state assessment task force’s recommendation to adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced Assessments. (See this post.) Her ability to explain her point of view persuasively and stay focused on issues, rather than personalities, is her strength.

I know from Charlie Eastman’s longstanding involvement with equity issues in the district that he’s capable of pushing back against district decisions when he thinks they’re wrong. In my experience, he’s a straight shooter and is serious about engaging with people who raise questions about district practices and policies. Similarly, I’ve seen JP Claussen ask hard, challenging questions, both to his political opponents and his supporters, in situations where the easy thing would have been to remain silent. I believe that both of them are well suited to engaging in meaningful administrative oversight.

Of all the candidates, Laura Westemeyer has been the most openly critical of the district, and she’s the only candidate who has said she will vote against the bond. She’s been particularly critical of the district’s handling of special education—and why shouldn’t she be? If our district had been more open to what special education parents (and others) were telling it for years, there might never have been a Westemeyer candidacy. In any event, she’s more than demonstrated that she’s unlikely to be a rubber stamp.

In my view, those are the “change” candidates. The remaining candidates seem to be offering the same approach to board service that we’ve seen from the board majority over the last two years or more. Shawn Eyestone and Ruthina Malone have both been good soldiers for the district’s PTOs and committees for years, and that’s valuable work. But if the administration could choose its own candidates, they are the kind it would choose. Some of their statements—for example, Eyestone’s statement here and Malone’s statement here—make me wonder whether they have already begun to identify with the administration in a way that would make it less likely that they will engage in effective oversight. Janet Godwin, the chief operating officer of ACT, has conducted a stay-the-course campaign and (as I wrote here) seems very similar to our current board chair; if anyone seems like a “more of the same” candidate, it’s Godwin.

Any one of these candidates could end up surprising us if they’re elected. All you can do is try to make an educated guess about how they’d act as board members, and of course your guess, and your priorities, may be different from mine. I appreciate the fact that anyone is willing to run for these seats, since it’s a big, uncompensated time commitment and also means publicly taking a lot of heat (for example, in blog posts like this one!). Whoever wins, I hope the board will re-assess its recent approach and start to more actively exercise meaningful oversight of the district’s administration. In my view, the success of all the board’s initiatives depends on that threshold change.

Other posts about the school board candidates:

Some things you should know about Karen Woltman
Janet Godwin, ACT, and the ICCSD
Ruthina Malone on the superintendent evaluation

For links to candidate websites and other election information, click here.


Anonymous said...

I'm for supporting all but one candidate you name and that's Laura Westmeyer. A friend from our special ed community shared concerns about her when she owned her company and how she treated employees. Plus, someone else shared this link with me so, I'll only vote for three but trust that those will off set Paul Roesler who is a horrible person and has no sympathy for our kids!


Anonymous said...

HO.LEE. CRAP. I don't think Paul Roesler is the horrible person here.... Oh the IRONY!

Anonymous said...

Laura is a great person who cares passionately cares about children. It's unfortunate you are relying on a "friend" who may have her own flaws. Running a business isn't easy, and I can tell you Laura has had a lot of long term employees and is well respected by many people.

Anonymous said...

The legal case referenced above had to do with a renter who had personal issues.
It was resolved.
Enough said.
The fact Laura Westmeyer started and built a VERY successful business serving the special needs children in our community, makes her 1000% more knowledgeable in how to manage money, meet financial and disability laws, and how to reach consensus than most of the other candidates. She will be fantastic as a school board member.

Anonymous said...

The RENTER had "personal issues?" The renter won the case and Westemeyer has a civil rights violation on her record. Also why and how did she send her kids to schools they were not assigned to attend. I'd hope that any board candidate believes all our schools are good enough for their own kids. :(

Anonymous said...

If this was over an "emotional support dog" then I think it is well known that there are MANY people who abuse that "title" in order to:

Bring a pet on an airplane with them (chickens and lizards have been allowed on planes for these reasons!)

Rent where they want with their dog that has no special training.

Perhaps as landlords they learned a lesson in a technical legal matter, but it is getting so absurdly abused that the law needs to be changed.

Anonymous said...

I will be voting NO on the bond. Unfortunately, I think we all know how this will almost certainly play out. We have all see the endorsements for the board seats, the writing is on the wall. There is just too much momentum, power, money and influence working here. The bond will pass. Godwin, Malone and Eyestone will be elected to form a new power majority on the board. Godwin will most likely take over for Lynch as the dictator of the board. New board majority will continue working the reign of power that iccsd commands and will bow down to Murley and administration's every demand. Murley will continue to get huge raises by his own machine that he has created. Murley will continue to do lucrative side "consulting" work on our dime while returning the favor to his buddies in our district (who even knows how much he is making on this). Money flows into building up East side Iowa City schools and banks and developers get rich. Hills and Lincoln eventually close because they aren't worth the money to make viable and capacity is not needed where they are - removed from bond. Old Hoover closes and a big parking lot is made at City High. Board and admin remaining squander money on east side projects. North Liberty schools all have 700+ kids and are crammed into temporaries or are bused to Iowa City. Sad, but true....

Anonymous said...

I am also voting NO on the bond and I think it is great that so many others are voting no. Regardless of what happens (either way it won't be over when the votes are counted) the "group" that is selling the bond and district agenda for the last 10 years is being exposed. Personally I'm a little surprised that West High and North Liberty continue to show any support for the current agenda.

City High and the shrinking east side minority who have assumed control of the district the last ten years have been motivated by fear. They are afraid of falling behind Liberty and becoming a run down and forgotten area of town. They want shiny sports facilities, new housing developments and they are convinced it will up their real estate value and quality of life. At this point it's fair to say the combined tactics they have employed have done more harm than good. Their funneling of massive amounts of funds to the east side might get them their baseball stadium and excess capacity but look at the culture they have created in the process. No real estate developer or school administration is going to be able to correct the harm they have done themselves.

The real tragedy in all of this is I don't think anyone has a problem with the east side getting a bump in funding, they are an aging area of the district. But they way they have gone about their power grab is downright offensive. They have crossed more ethical lines than I ever imagined. Voting No is better than not voting or voting yes. The sooner this group gets reeled in the better we will "ALL" be.

and Eastman will all be getting my vote!

Anonymous said...

From everything that I have read on blogs, Facebook, opinion pieces, it seems like there is one commonality that almost everyone agrees on. This is that Murley and possibly other administrators need to go and we need new leadership, especially if the bond passes. I am not hearing much support for Murley, even from those who support the bond. I would prefer the bond be smaller and more focused on a/c and capacity needs, but I would be okay with it as is IF we knew we could get rid of Murley or at the very least hold him accountable for his actions (something we currently are not doing). I would be interested in hearing the board candidates opinion on firing Murley and would definitely vote for any in favor.

Anonymous said...

To add to the previous question, and specifically to Chris since he's an attorney, what would it cost the district by way having to pay out the remainder of SMs contract?

Anonymous said...

How long does SM contract go through? Is there anything in the contract that he has broken that we could terminate him for? This should be looked into. I too would support the bond if SM was gone. I will not support a bond while he is in charge. I don't trust him at all and I think he has really divided our community.

Brad F said...

I fully agree--I would probably vote yes for this bond if SM was not there. I have serious trust issues with his leadership how he has conducted himself with the Board.

Frank said...

Finally something both sides can agree on that will truly benefit all of our schools. Sign me up for getting rid of SM. He is toxic to our district. What can we do to help get this done?