It's not easy being on the school board of a public school district.
School board members, who are not paid for their service, must make decisions about budgets, staffing, and curriculum. Inside and outside of meetings, they are peppered with questions about policies, finances and personnel, because they are the elected officials who govern the school district. But by and large, are not educators and have little expertise outside of personal experience and a series of crash courses they're given after election.
The Iowa Association of School Board highly recommends they speak as a unit through the board president, but as elected directors, that approach can frustrate their constituents.
In some districts, like Pleasant Valley, a journalist might be the only person at the meeting, if one is there at all. In others, there are regular attendees, some of whom might have a better yearly attendance record than some of the board members.
Despite members controlling millions of dollars in school budgets, and making crucial decisions about the district's direction, only a small number of voters decide who serves. Turnout in school elections is typically dismally low, though that may change this year, when school board members will be elected alongside aldermen and mayors, in November.
With a flurry of controversies in a couple of districts -- state audits, closed schools, navigating a superintendent search and strict budget cuts -- a higher turnout just might be especially important this year.
A bigger, later election
In this year’s election, it would be almost impossible for the voter turnout for school board members to not triple or quadruple.
“They're going to jump enormously,” Roxanna Moritz, Scott County auditor and commissioner of elections said. “There’s going to be a much more heightened awareness and probably more campaigning.”
How big of a jump is the auditor’s office expecting? Voter turnout for previous school board elections is between 3 and 5%. Municipal elections when the mayor’s seat up is not up for grabs garner about 15%. Moritz said that with the mayor’s race on the line, they’re hoping for something closer to 30%.
While low turnout is a problem, Moritz said, so is the lack of interest in running for the seats.
“People will write in on a ballot because no one wants to run,” she said.
In 2015, only three people ran for four seats on the Davenport School Board. Director Julie DeSalvo was appointed to the fourth open seat with 478 voters writing her in. After one term, she is not running again.
DeSalvo did not immediately respond for comment, but previously said the time commitment was too great, she couldn't give the board the attention it needs.
Increasing voter turnout isn’t the only reason to align elections -- Moritz said it’ll save taxpayer money to run one election instead of two. It does, though, create a lot of “tedious work” in the auditor’s office to make sure the ballots are correct. Districts and city limits don’t line up perfectly: Davenport schools extend to Buffalo and Blue Grass, and part of the city of Bettendorf goes to Pleasant Valley Schools. Pleasant Valley is also one of the only area school boards to include districts within the district: Board members in Bettendorf, Davenport and North Scott are all at-large.
What do board members actually do?
School boards have both far more and far less power than anyone realizes, depending on who you’re asking. The influence school boards have over property taxes often slips by unnoticed, while their influence over individual classrooms and teachers or staff can be overstated.
Before state Senator Chris Cournoyer was the vice-chair for Iowa’s standing education committee, she was president of the Pleasant Valley School Board. For her, school board members have two goals.
“I boil it down to two things: making sure every student gets an education to prepare them for post-secondary success and fiscal responsibility toward the taxpayer,” she said.
Too often, Cournoyer said boards get too involved in the day-to-day of the district.
“As a senator, now I get into the weeds. As a school board member, that was not my job,” she said. “... They’re micromanaging too much.”
Bettendorf Board President Adam Holland agreed that the scope of what the board handles comes down to two things: setting district policy and setting the budgets.
“You’re one of seven. If you don’t get three friends on your side, you’re not going to get anything,” he said.
More than a dozen people considering a run for their board attended an Aug. 28 session with Lou Ann Gvist, a board specialist with the Iowa Association of School Boards. She had a lot of advice for those potential candidates: Stay out of the weeds, don’t make promises during your campaign and trust your superintendent to handle the day-to-day.
Board members, Gvist said, should be focused on setting priorities and policy. In practice, board members aren’t the ones creating budgets, for example. The administration creates the budget, and the board is charged with approving it, after asking questions and making modifications, if need be.
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“The board sets the ends, and hires the superintendent to make it happen,” she said.
If that isn’t working? Cournoyer was very blunt: “If you don’t like how your district is being run, you fire the superintendent.”
Why don’t people run?
Those interested in running need to file their paperwork and signatures by Sept. 19, about six weeks before the Nov. 5 election.
Being a school board member is a major time commitment. The term is for four years, and depending on the district, there are one to three scheduled meetings a month, not counting any special call meetings that can occur. Board members serve on subcommittees and are often expected to make appearances at district events, everything including homecoming parades, sporting events, student performances and whatever else may pop up.
“You’re in the fishbowl,” Moritz said. “There’s so much scrutiny for public office.”
Bettendorf Director Stacey Struck recently had to step down because she was moving out of the district. There have been seven applicants to fill her seat through the rest of her term, which ends in November.
Meanwhile, only one person so far has filed to run for the full term.
Linda Smithson is a school librarian in the Davenport School District but lives in Bettendorf, where she has a fourth-grader and a high school freshman. She’s put her name in for Struck’s interim seat, but won’t be on the ballot in November.
“I have kids at home. I’ve been very involved in the Davenport School District,” she said. “… I’ve gone to a lot of board meetings, and I know that it is a huge commitment. I’m not ready to commit to four years, but I want to become more aware of what’s happening.”
While Smithson said she would “possibly” consider running for a full-term, she said the time commitment of attending multiple meetings per month, including committee meetings just wasn’t practical for her life right now.
Often, board members have older children in the district, or their kids might be adults. Smithson commended Allison Beck and Dan Gosa, both of the Davenport board, for being on the board while their kids were still young.
“We need more people like that, though,” she said. “There kids are in the schools. They know the questions to ask.”
But for a lot of people with kids, “just getting there” can be a challenge, Smithson admitted.
Even for dedicated parents and community members who take the time to show up to meetings, collect names for petitions and “do the homework” on their kids’ schools and the community’s tax dollars, the board’s role -- or the perception of the board’s role -- can be a deterrent.
Sara Wells’ children went through Bettendorf Schools, but they’re all grown now. She often attends board meetings and addresses the board, either through public comment or email. And while she said her friends and neighbors have encouraged her to run, she has no plans to.
“I can do and say whatever I want as a community member,” she said. As a board member, there’s more pressure to speak with a sense of rounded-off tact, rather than to be blunt about your feelings toward individuals in the district.
While Wells said she understood why it was beneficial for the board to speak in a unified voice, she still expressed frustration about how it guided board discussions and decisions.
“I don’t think board members are willing to really stand up and fight, singly, for what they believe in,” she said. “They’re trying to work together, which we usually think of as a good thing, but if they feel strongly about something, they need to bring it to light.”
Joanna Doerder’s children, on the other hand, are too young to be in the district. Her oldest just started preschool, and her youngest is due in a matter of weeks. She said that means she has at least 18 or so years until her kids are finished with Bettendorf Schools.
Like Wells, Doerder attends meetings and engages with the board. She disseminated information about the $30 million general obligation bond that failed in December and helped with a petition to rename to newly-combined Mark Twain Elementary. Months ago, she said she felt she could do more off the board than on it.
The current board has twice voted against renewing Superintendent Mike Raso’s contract beyond this school year. Now that they’re starting to solicit search firms to find his replacement, Doerder said she’s more seriously considering running, to be part of that “critical turning point.”
“This is the number one most important person as far as leadership in the district goes,” she said. “You have to make the right choice.”
Still, how the board communicates with the public has been a point of contention for Doerder’s deliberation. She said she couldn’t be as critical of the board if she was on it.
Holland said the criticism necessitated anyone running has tough skin.
“I don’t want to say it’s unheard of, but it’s rare for people to appreciate you,” he said.