2015 ICEA School Board Candidate Questionnaire

2015 ICEA School Board Candidate Questions

  1. Please share with us why you are running for the Board. Specifically highlight professional or personal experiences that will make you a good Board member as well as your top priorities if elected. I want every student in our district to receive a high quality education and to have access to curriculum that will help them gain the skills they will need to excel in the 21st century. I firmly believe that the K-12 public education my daughter Monica received was second to none and it is the duty of the school board to ensure that this tradition of excellence continues. My nearly perfect attendance at board meetings over the last six years allowed me to develop a keen sense of the issues the board has had to deal with along with the processes that must be followed to resolve those issues. Based on what I’ve observed and on the comments of the many people that I’ve been privileged to talk to it seems our school board’s biggest priorities should be: to provide oversight and stewardship of our district’s resources including both financial and physical properties, to hold administration accountable for the decisions they make or don’t make and in that way serve as the system of checks and balances, and to make sure that all community members are provided a forum where they can share their concerns without fear of censorship or reprisal. Our community members want a board and an administration that believes in transparency and open dialog.
  1. In the past two years, what do you think the Board’s biggest success has been and what do you think its biggest failure has been? The biggest success has been the Facilities Master Plan; its biggest failure has been our administrations consistent policy of ignoring community and staff concerns.
  1. In your view, what is the appropriate role for ICEA–the teacher’s union–to play in the District’s decision making process? I see the ICEA as being vital to the success of our district. They have helped shaped policies and those policies have resulted in benefits to our district’s highly qualified educators and to our students. Because of their diligence we are one of the few “destination” districts for teachers and we have a very high retention rate as compared to other districts in our state. The ICEA’s advocacy for teachers and students continues to be a key contributing factor to the success of our schools. As a Board Member I would want to strengthen the relationship and would urge the Board and Superintendent to provide a permanent chair for a representative from the ICEA at all Board meetings. Only allowing an ICEA representative to speak once a month at board meetings is serious mistake because they are the boots on the ground in our classrooms who truly have their collective fingers on the pulses of our youth. They are highly qualified and their input and expertise should be better utilized. .
  1. There has been considerable debate in our District regarding the role that diversity data should play when making decisions about school boundaries.  What is your philosophy on this issue? My work in many different countries schooled me and instilled my strong belief in the benefits of a diverse community.  Diversity enriches the educational experience by preparing our children for work in an increasingly diverse and varied work force.  I also believe the best school for any student is the one closest to their home.  Every child’s neighborhood school is where their playground is, where they feel most directly supported and comfortable. When I first ran for the board in 2011, I talked about reallocating resources, not relocating students. By the end of that 2011 board race all candidates took my lead and basically parroted my sentiments. However, those same candidates who became board members did not stand by that campaign promise. The reality is our district has schools which have greater needs than others and they necessarily should receive greater resources and assistance to ensure equitable outcomes of our students. Bussing students at great cost to our district from a SINA school to a low FRL school will not stop the achievement gap; allocation of additional resources to SINA School will. We need to start using our imagination and solicit input from our well educated and vested citizens to come up with solutions to our achievement gaps and to stop making claims that redistributing students is the answer. The only thing this proposed solution does is make the coffers at Durham swell. We have a limited amount of financial resources and we need to spend those dollars wisely with the best interest of our students in mind.
  1. Teachers face an ever increasing number of time-consuming requirements from local, state and federal initiatives focusing on math and reading test scores and data collection.  What role(s) do you see the Board playing in addressing teacher concerns about this? Listen, listen and then listen some more. They are the true experts and their input is vital if we are truly going to create comprehensive learning environments for our students. The classroom teachers know what is and what is not affective and although standardized assessments are useful and required by the state, they do not paint a complete picture of a student’s achievement or rate of growth. We need to use curriculum based measures including formative, summative and criterion based assessments along with teacher observation and a student’s permanent product so we can truly gauge the progress of our students. Students are not automatons with on/off buttons and they don’t learn or acquire information in the same way or at the same rate. We do not want the creative process taken out of teaching, which is what will occur if we start teaching to tests and using scripted curriculum. Our districts administrators and board members must be mindful of the Iowa core and the 21st century skills, but they must also understand that our teachers should be given time to teach and to develop the creative minds of our districts youth.
  1. In 2010 the Iowa legislature adopted the Common Core, establishing statewide standards grades K-12 in Iowa.  How do you envision meeting Common Core standards district-wide while maintaining autonomy and flexibility for Iowa City teachers? We must do our utmost to help students meet or exceed certain benchmarks and goals especially in the areas of reading and math. At the same time it is unreasonable to expect all early elementary students to acquire those skills at the same rate or to reach the proficiency level by grade X or Y. I’ve had the opportunity to observe some of our great instructors at work in the ICCSD. Teaching is a creative art and it takes a special person to take on the task. They are first and foremost educators, but they are also entertainers, social workers, psychologists, counselors… the list could go on and on. As I stated earlier, we need to allow teachers to be creative, to be engaging and to do this they need autonomy and the ability to differentiate their curriculum based on the learning styles of their students. Taking a one size fits all approach to education is a recipe for disaster and is the antithesis of good teaching.
  1. Some elected officials in the State of Iowa believe that the collective bargaining rights of teacher’s unions—-and the contracts that negotiation process produces–are largely to blame for the budget problems facing many local school districts.   What role should collective bargaining play in public education? Everyone needs an advocate, and this includes educators. I am a firm supporter of unions and the collective bargaining process. Historically trade unions have made the workplace safer and they have helped ensure that all laborers, including teachers, are fairly compensated for the work they perform. The teachers in our district deserve every penny of the compensation they receive. As a state we need to look at the other areas to reduce costs such as creating statewide pool to reduce insurance costs or reducing administrative costs by sharing school administrators between districts. Of course we can also save money by making our buildings more energy efficient including using geothermal technologies, by utilizing renewable energy such as solar and wind, and by using less consumables like paper copies. We must stop looking to balance our school budget off the backs of our teachers; they deserve more compensation, not less.
  1. As you may have heard or read, 81% of the Iowa City School District’s budget goes for personnel costs.  Given this and the low level of Supplemental State Aid funding from the State of Iowa, what will be your budget priorities and goals if elected to the Board? As I stated earlier, we have ways to reduce this number and creating a statewide insurance pool would be one way to reduce those personnel costs. Another would be to reduce the amount of administrative overhead. Like a laser beam, I would focus on the millions of dollars we have 100% control over. The state legislators who serve constituents in the ICCSD do a phenomenal job lobbying on our district’s behalf to provide us with the funds we all feel are needed. Unfortunately the state legislature did not listen to them and our Governor vetoed the one time funds agreed upon by the state senate and legislature. My role as a board member is to let my state legislators know how much the people in the ICCSD value education and to implore them to work on fully funding education so we can meet the needs of our students. We can complain about the decisions made in Des Moines; that is our collective right. However, if I become a board member I will work my hardest to ensure that the money we spend and that we do have control over is spent wisely. I will therefore prioritize fiduciary oversight and will call for the creation of a finance or auditing committee, something the Synesi report said was necessary. I will also prioritize making a bidding process which is opened up to all potential vendors and one that is transparent.
  1. For a variety of reasons, the District made cuts to several areas two years ago.  If faced with such a decision in the future, what criteria would you use as a Board member for prioritizing people and programs? I spoke many times during this period of time when orchestra, German, 7th grade football and other staff and curriculum cuts were thrust upon the public at the last minute with little or no community input. We had options and we had alternatives but Administration had a lack of imagination and did not want to hear of any alternatives from the staff or the public. Could we have done things differently? Hell yes. I would have started as far away from the classrooms and at the front door of the ESC by eliminating non-essential staff.
  1. One of the challenges in a growing district is balancing the need for new schools and facilities with the need to support existing schools and facilities.  As a Board member, how would you balance these needs? The needs at our older schools date back decades and these deficiencies, until corrected, will persist. Existing schools with existing students have immediate challenges that can’t be ignored. If indeed we find that new schools need to be built to address our growing student base, we will have to build them and they will be able to serve all students regardless of need from day one. I am most interested in providing the best learning environments possible where the students presently are, as opposed to a “Field of Dreams” philosophy whereby you build it thinking “they will come”.
  1. Teachers throughout the District are facing difficult working conditions ranging from 35+ kids in a classroom to prescribed use of prep time, plus personnel and programming cuts.  This has led to increased stress and decreased morale. If elected, what will you do to address this situation? For the past six (6) years, I have been a mainstay at board meetings and have provided board members with alternatives and direction on spending issues. These alternatives were centered around decreasing the impact on students and teachers. I loudly voiced my concerns to our districts administration and showed them several instances of funds being spent inappropriately that could have been used to prevent staff reductions that resulted in larger class sizes. It’s crucial we maximize the buying power of every dollar spent and that we prioritize that spending for things that will improve the educational experiences of those in the classroom. We need dollars for curriculum, for staff and we need to provide teachers with adequate prep time so they can craft their lesson plans and teach our students. As far as I am concerned, one of our state lobbying goals should be to provide mandatory paid prep time for our teachers and to work on making sure this is a part of the Iowa Code. Some of the stress and decreased morale has resulted from things done at the state level but if elected, I will do everything within my power to provide an environment where there can be a real dialogue between staff and administration where teachers and staff will not have to worry about retaliation and retribution for giving truthful and meaningful critiques. I will not tolerate teachers being punished for advocating for their students or their ideas. We need everyone’s involvement and input if we are going to grow as a district and if we are to create true professional learning communities.
  1. Please list one “under the radar” issue that has not received adequate attention that deserves more focus and explain why. There are many “under the radar” issues – and it is very difficult to limit it just to one. However, one issue I feel that needs to be addressed is the labeling of elementary students “behavior disordered (BD)” which carries the real prospect that this label will stick with them throughout their school career. There needs to be a system that helps students develop the social and soft skills they will need to shed that label and reintegrate back into the general education setting. Another issue I would be remiss not to bring up is the lack of competitive bidding for service contracts with the ICCSD. I have lobbied the State legislature to amend the code to no avail and our board is fiscally blind to the potential savings competitively bidding projects could result in. There is a profit incentive by the private sector to be the only bidder for public monies. Competition is what we need and our Board members have to be jealous watchdogs of all public funds, especially now. There is constant pressure by private business to get a bigger and bigger piece of the public fund pie. Student success should be our driving concern, not private business profits.

College Not for Everyone

College Not for Everyone

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics has a database that uses a formula for each state to determine the number of jobs in a given area per thousand people (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_ia.htm) . The data clearly shows that in Iowa many of the jobs are and will be in the middle skill area which do not require advanced degrees. However, many do require post-secondary training through vocational or apprenticeship programs. For example, one of the higher need areas is in/ will be in the installation, maintenance and repair occupation field where there are 44.9 jobs available per 1,000 working age adults (44.9/1,000). Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations is at 30.5/1,000 and office and administrative support occupations is at 146.3/1,000. These are just a few of the vocational areas where our state has critical shortages, and most of these jobs provide employees with enough income to be considered “middle class”, which according to the Business Insider website (http://www.businessinsider.com/middle-class-in-every-us-state-2015-4)   means having a household income between $34,819- $104, 458. According to the publication Iowa Watch http://iowawatch.org/2015/05/10/plenty-of-2015-college-grads-will-continue-exodus-trend-from-iowa/ ) half of the graduates from the University of Iowa and from Iowa State University will leave the state upon graduation, primarily to look for work. This leads me to an obvious question which is; why are we sending so many of our high school graduates off to four year colleges which will leave them with few in state job prospects in their degree areas and skyrocketing college loan debts? I therefore propose we increase vocational and technical education opportunities for our students at the secondary level. However, over the last few years the ICCSD has gotten rid of many programs that served to introduce students to vocational and technical fields such as auto maintenance, welding, and home construction. If we are truly a “data driven” school district, the planned demise of those programs seems counterintuitive. Of course I support students who do go on to traditional four year colleges- we also have critical shortages of health care professionals in our state as well as teachers and engineers. However, not all students have the academic skill set or desire to pursue careers in those academically challenging fields. During that same time period we also saw an increase in the amount of AP and Honors classes being offered. It is time for the ICCSD do look at the data and take actions that make sense for all of our students.

Phil Hemingway