Living in Society

More About the Solon School Board Election

Major news outlets like the Iowa City Press Citizen and the Cedar Rapids Gazette have provided minimal coverage of the Nov. 5 Solon School Board election. There is a need for information about the election in our community. I’ve been working to fill that need.

The candidates on the ballot for two seats on the school board are Adam Haluska (incumbent), Lauren O’Neil, Carlos Ortega, Jennifer Stahle, Seth Wear and Jami Wolf.

Thursday the Solon Economist published candidate responses to standard questions beginning on page A1. The on-line newspaper is accessible by subscription only and people should subscribe if they live in the school district. It’s still only $30 per year. The Economist office on Main Street has copies for sale. If the Economist provided the only candidate information a voter had, a reasonable voting decision could be made.

Following are some considerations for choosing two candidates on or before Nov. 5. Hopefully my process will help readers with theirs.

There was school board turbulence this year.

With our daughter long graduated from Solon High School, activities of the school board and administration had fallen into the background. As long as there was no turbulence, I favored people I knew and incumbency during elections. I have also been willing to give newcomers a chance to be on the board if they made their case.

There was turbulence this year over the contract negotiation with the union, so much so the manner in which the negotiations were handled rippled through the community. At the public candidate forum it was asserted by a questioner that teacher turnover last year was the highest it has been in 40 years. This is cause for concern.

Throw the bums out?

Is turbulence created by acknowledged mistakes cause to vote out the three remaining incumbents who participated?

Three directors remain because Jim Hauer decided not to run for re-election and board president Tim Brown previously announced his plan to leave the board when his term is up in 2021. That leaves incumbents Adam Haluska, Rick Jedlicka and Dan Coons. The latter two have not announced their intentions for the 2021 election.

As much as I enjoy the scene from the Grapes of Wrath in which sharecroppers are being told to leave their land, prompting the question, “who do we shoot?” bum-throwing-out is not a universal sentiment. It is a maybe.

Statements like “throw the bums out” serve little purpose. What seems more important and often heard is “they support the administration more than employees,” and its variant “the administration supports X candidate.” Creating this division between staff and the board is the wrong approach because the progress and success of a board is dependent upon a close relationship with staff, including teachers and the administration. I witnessed this while covering the Iowa City Community School District board meetings for the North Liberty Leader. A school board relies heavily on the administration, in particular on those responsible for financial affairs and budgeting.

I spoke with a couple dozen voters since beginning this series of posts and the sentiment is Adam Haluska should not get a second term because of his participation in this year’s contract negotiations. I haven’t decided, however, it seems unlikely I will vote for him again.

If contract negotiations are an acknowledged error from which board members learned, the dynamic of the election changes. Instead of seeking remedy to grievances by removal of board members who were part of the fiasco, the better question is now that the district completed a major series of infrastructure projects, beginning with the high school, how do we make a board that will consider the needs of current and future students, the needs of every student and family? That must be a focus of our decision on Nov. 5.

Questions and some answers

Here are some questions I find myself asking about the candidates with short answers. My answers are subject to change as I continue to discuss candidates in the community:

Should Haluska be voted out because he was on the board during the contract negotiations? All of the people I interviewed said yes.

How will the candidate approach the work if elected? Being a candidate is about engagement with the community. To a large degree, being on the school board is too. Haluska and Stahle both touted the new district phone application at the public forum. They apparently don’t understand how this will, by its nature, exclude people from the conversation. A computer application is an easy answer that doesn’t fundamentally change what may be communicated. There has to be a better way.

Should the gender mix of board members matter? My position is we should elect the best candidates regardless of gender. Lauren O’Neil and Jami Wolf are standout candidates because of their approach to the election. O’Neil’s engineering background lent strength to her forum performance. Wolf is engaged with students and parents and seeks inclusion of every student in her current volunteer work with the district. There are risks and rewards with each of them, but both are credible candidates. In her own way, Stahle is also a credible candidate.

Who will protect the teachers? As a union member and teacher at Kirkwood Community College, Carlos Ortega would be a voice for teachers on the board.

Who has reached out personally? That likely differs depending on a voter’s level of engagement. The candidates seem very approachable, so a person could reach out to them if desired. The people I interviewed had not had much direct contact with candidates. Standouts for me regarding voter outreach are Carlos Ortega, Seth Wear and Jami Wolf. The Solon Economist article remains a main source of information for most voters.

What is the electorate that will determine election results? The coalition of long-time Solon families was important in it’s day. That era is fading as new families, many attracted to the school district, make the Solon area their home. There are more voters in the rural parts of the district than within city limits and it’s difficult to predict how they will vote. I believe voter turnout will be higher than the 498 who voted in the 2017 school board election. I also believe candidates can move their margin to victory by bringing a few dozen voters who don’t usually vote in a school board election to the polls.

Which candidate will bring diversity? There are no easy answers. The Solon community is less diverse than others in which I’ve lived. When considering all six candidates Carlos Ortega is a standout regarding diversity because he was raised in Mainz, Germany, studied foreign languages in college, and teaches in the International Programs Department at Kirkwood Community College. Jami Wolf assured me diversity was a priority. She worked toward inclusion of students in her involvement with the district and would continue if elected.

Most of my community of friends and neighbors is still in the process of deciding for whom to vote on Nov. 5. My questions and answers may not fit every voter and I’m fine with that. A lot depends upon electing two school board members who can take our district into an uncertain future while giving students the skills and experience to meet the challenges it brings.

Thanks for reading. To view the series of posts, click on this link to the tag 2019 SSB Election.

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