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Living in Society

Solon School Board Election Results

Big Grove Precinct Polling Place Nov. 5, 2019

Incumbent Adam Haluska and newcomer Jami Wolf bested the field of six candidates for director of the Solon School Board.

Preliminary vote totals released by the county auditor show at least 1,174 voters cast a ballot, although the final numbers won’t be available for a few days.

Voter turnout was more than double the last school board election in 2017. With six candidates active, their campaigns boosted turnout by activating networks of friends and family who didn’t vote in 2017. That combined with the aftershock of this year’s contract negotiations with the teacher’s union increased the size of the electorate. That’s good for our governance.

Unofficial Results

It’s about time a woman was part of the school board again. Jami Wolf ran a solid campaign and had a unique personal story and message seeking inclusion of all families and their students in the school. Her hashtag #ForAllFamilies proved to be a winner.

If poorly executed contract negotiations with the teacher’s union drove a high number of candidates, the message from the electorate was that Adam Haluska’s explanations of board missteps were accepted and could be forgiven. That will likely hold true in 2021 for whichever of the three board members whose terms expire run for reelection. In the life of Solon schools, it was a bump in the road, one I believe will fade in memory by the time of the next school board election.

There was no shortage of qualified candidates. I hope Ortega, O’Neil, Stahle and Wear consider running again in 2021 when three board seats will be up. With this election in the books, our attention now turns to the 2020 general election less than a year away.

I congratulate the winners and hope board directors learned a lesson from their mishandling of contract negotiations.

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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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Living in Society Writing

Writing About the School Board Election

Before the Poll Opens, Nov. 3, 2010

Today’s edition of the Solon Economist hasn’t been posted on line. The paper copy will arrive with the letter carrier late today, although I may try to find one on the way to my shift at the home, farm and auto supply store.

Once I read the school board candidate questionnaire responses, I will have finished gathering most of the input to determine which two of six candidates for whom I’ll vote on Nov. 5. After determining my votes I’ll begin outreach to friends and neighbors asking them to vote with me. My initial canvass indicated many people don’t plan to vote this election. In a low-information, low-turnout election, that could be the difference in which candidates are the top vote-getters.

When writing about the election there is a line between public and private information. I’ve been diligent about keeping emails, phone calls and meetings private even if they help inform my choice of candidates. It would be unfair and wrong to disclose publicly what someone told me privately. I can see why journalists and responsible bloggers try to keep those separate.

Neither of the major newspapers, the Iowa City Press Citizen nor the Cedar Rapids Gazette, has provided much coverage of the election. There was an initial report after the filing deadline, but since then, nary a printed word. Because of that, readership of this blog, where I am covered major aspects of the campaigns, catapulted to new highs.  The blog set records for number of page views of single post, daily, weekly and monthly statistics. Because of the school board articles my annual readership is the highest it’s ever been with 10 weeks left in the year. The number of views rivals my best days as a freelancer at the Iowa City Press Citizen.

I shouldn’t have to fill the gap in news coverage but that’s where this lands. I feel a responsibility to get the story right while knowing my point of view is influenced by living in the community since 1993. Because of relationships with friends and neighbors I have a deeper understanding of segments of our community. I work toward unbiased reporting while my academic studies indicated that’s not really possible. Every writer, including me, has some axe to grind.

Writing about the school board election includes fairness and presentation of accurate information. Without that, what’s the point? I’m working without an editor so I had a misstep or two, which were fixed as quickly as feasible. No one is perfect. I feel a responsibility to our community to create a reasonable narrative from diverse and uneven information from and about the candidates. It is not obvious what that narrative should be.

It has been my pleasure to interact with the six candidates during the last week or so. It takes courage to put one’s name in the arena of competitive elections. As I’ve written previously, there are no clinkers this cycle, only the challenge of securing facts upon which to make our decisions. Hopefully these posts contribute to that endeavor.

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

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Living in Society

A Single Solon School Board Candidate Forum

L to R: Carlos Ortega, Jennifer Stahle, Seth Wear, Jami Wolf, Lauren O’Neil and Adam Haluska. Oct. 22, 2019

Most chairs at Palmer House Stable in Solon were filled with local voters ready to hear candidates for school board make statements and answer questions for 90 minutes on Tuesday. It is the only public appearance at a single venue by the candidates: Adam Haluska, Lauren O’Neil, Carlos Ortega, Jennifer Stahle, Seth Wear and Jami Wolf.

After spending time reading about and researching them I wanted to hear them in person. Little information is available to the public so attending the forum and reading the candidate survey responses in this week’s Solon Economist will serve as main information sources for voters.

Dean Martin, a neighbor and former school board member (2007-2015), explained the forum rules and asked the questions. Solon City Councilor Lauren Whitehead served as time keeper. I had a front row seat and recorded audio. My impressions of the field changed during the event.

If voters want the board to continue down the established path, based on the forum performance the clear choices would be Adam Haluska and Seth Wear. The two male candidates were articulate in demonstrating deep knowledge of school board activities and planned initiatives. Wear even released a budget analysis of the district prior to the forum as part of his campaign. Solon needs a more diverse school board to work with a more diverse student population. The male dominance of the current board should change this election. That means at least one of these two, and maybe both, should be sacrificed.

The current board botched implementation of the collective bargaining law signed by Governor Terry Branstad in 2017. They hired an attorney to ensure compliance, which in itself was a prudent decision. However, as one candidate said, there really was no contract negotiation between the board and the teachers union. The result of that misstep was the highest teacher turnover in the district in 40 years.

Bullying, intolerance, and mental health issues are real. Solon parents schooling children who are “different” outside the district is also a real phenomenon. Candidates mentioned budgetary constraints repeatedly when diversity, special education, and mental health were discussed. While most lauded the district as one of the best in the state, that may be true only if students follow a conventional path. From experience we know individuals fall through the cracks and the district is not as good as it could be. To their credit, most candidates acknowledged this.

Lauren O’Neil demonstrated poise, was knowledgeable, and offered viable approaches to problem-solving. Her work as an engineer would be a positive contribution to the board. My concern is how she would handle situations if her spouse is elected to city council when school district and city interests intersect. I emailed her the question.

Jami Wolf demonstrated a substantial ability to consider board decisions from the perspective of students and parents. That is her strength as a candidate and something lacking in the board actions around recent contract negotiations. Based on her performance she would be an advocate for diversity in the district. Whatever shortcomings she may have are more than made up for by what she brings to the table. As she mentioned in her closing statement, she has something different to offer the board.

Jennifer Stahle was confident and seemed competent. She mentioned her two-year participation on the School Improvement Advisory Board a couple of times. Her participation on that board gives her an inside track to ongoing initiatives like the phone application to improve district communication. She would be a candidate who could continue the current board ‘s direction.

Carlos Ortega disclosed a new bit of information. He is a union member at Kirkwood Community College. He is a neighbor and people I know who know him believe he is a strong candidate with a solid family life. He would be the sole union member on the school board.

The forum provided dimension to the candidates. They seemed more well-rounded and thoughtful. The event made the decision for whom to vote more difficult.

I spent more time understanding candidates this cycle than in previous school board elections. In a low information, low turnout election personal relationships will be important. The fact I have personal connections with several candidates will play a role in determining how I vote. Depending on how the rest of the week goes, I should be able to pick two by the weekend.

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

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Living in Society

Before the Solon School Board Forum

Tonight will be the only forum in which six men and women running for two seats on the Solon School Board appear together in public and answer questions.

The forum begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Palmer House Stable, a small venue donated for the event. The forum is co-sponsored by the Solon Education Association and the Solon Parent Teacher Organization.

Last night I spent 90 minutes reading the responses to the questionnaire I sent to all six candidates. On the top of our lists, in alphabetical order, are Carlos Ortega (NP), Seth Wear (D), and Jami Wolf (R). On the bottom, also in alphabetical order, are Adam Haluska (R), Lauren O’Neil (NP), and Jennifer Stahle (R).

In alphabetical order, here is one sentence why the candidates were ranked as they are:

Haluska: The incumbent is not convinced a major change is needed on the board.

O’Neil: Her spouse is running for Solon City Council on Nov. 5 and she didn’t mention it or clarify how conflicts of interest between the city and school board would be resolved if both were elected.

Ortega: He recognized the need for diversity and better communication in the district and teaches at Kirkwood Community College.

Stahle: She was the only candidate that did not answer my email questions, referring me to the forum tonight and this week’s candidate comparison in the newspaper.

Wear: He recognized the rift between staff and the administration and would like to “begin to rebuild that trust and openness with the staff that is currently lacking.”

Wolf: She recognized the need for diversity in thought and perspective on the board, for better communication in the district, and has worked in the district previously while currently volunteering.

There is more to the story than one sentence. I want to emphasize that all six candidates have qualifications that would be important on the school board. This is a low-information, low-turnout election and what I received ahead of the forum from each candidate is an important part of how we ranked them. Tonight’s forum and the questionnaire expected in Thursday’s Solon Economist should enable us to finalize for whom we will vote.

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

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Living in Society

Vote on Nov. 5

Vote Nov. 5

My message about the Nov. 5 school board election is simple. Learn about the candidates and vote!

It has been difficult to determine which of six school board candidates is best qualified. All of them would bring something to the job and each expressed a strong desire to improve the Solon School District. There aren’t any clinkers among them.

When three of the current board members were elected in 2017 only 498 people voted according to the Johnson County Auditor. 10 percent of registered voters is not enough to validate the kind of support needed to meet the challenges of district facilities and staffing in coming years. We each, young and old, have a stake in this election and should engage in the choice before us.

I hope you will show your Spartan spirit by researching the candidates and voting for two of the six candidates you believe are best qualified to join the school board on or before Nov. 5.

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

~ Published in the Oct. 24, 2019 edition of the Solon Economist

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Living in Society

Solon School Board Election 2019 – Take Two

Newport Precinct Polling Place, Nov. 3, 2010.

At what point do the achievements and momentum of a local school board yield to change many perceive is needed?

The large number of candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot, six candidates for two seats, suggests the time is now.

I’ve heard from all six via email and telephone. My impression is each of them is sincere in their stated goal of making the district as good as it can be for our children. In the Solon School District we have done many things right.

In recent years, Solon built a new high school, a new middle school, and a new intermediate school, all with little controversy. Athletic fields are expansive and the recently finished Solon Center for the Arts is a first class facility.

Compare that to the Iowa City Community School District where its master facilities plan, which I covered for the North Liberty Leader, has been fraught with controversy. Emblematic is the ongoing debate over what to do with Hoover Elementary School. The issue was on the November ballot after many public comments, legal battles, and sundry frustrations. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Oct. 18 the issue is not to be on the ballot two weeks after early voting began. Solon is no Iowa City. Solon did facilities right in a community where there is living memory of people who attended the one-room school house on Highway One.

The main sticking point in the community has to do with the way teachers were treated by administration in the recent contract negotiations.

Word on the street is the administration favors two candidates: Adam Haluska and Jennifer Stahle. Haluska was first elected to the Solon School board in 2015. Stahle is a long-time area resident who is also involved as a volunteer with the schools. Both Haluska and Stahle have qualifications relevant to being a school board member. If I get confirmation from another source I’ll have more to say about the administration’s role in favoring candidates for the board that governs them.

In different ways, each of the four remaining candidates either points to the conflict between the administration and teachers over contract changes as a motivation for running for office, or politely says they would like to improve transparency and/or communication between the groups. Even if Haluska and Stahle are not favored by the administration, the field of candidates appears to divide into two camps: candidates that want to build on progress already made, and one that favors changes in the relationships between administration, teachers and students.

It is difficult to see whether voter turnout will be any different Nov. 5 than in 2017 when about 10 percent of registered voters (498 voters) turned out for the school board election. Views of people with whom I discuss voting for school board have been a mixed bag. Some said they aren’t engaged in the school board election and don’t plan to be. Others would vote if encouraged but don’t know any of the candidates, including the incumbent. There are twenty-somethings, some with young children, for whom voting is something they just don’t do. If candidates rally their constituencies around a get out the vote campaign, any of the six could sway the election results due to what I see as another low turnout election.

I plan a deep dive into the candidates once the Solon Economist publishes its candidate survey results. They ran the article about city council candidates in yesterday’s edition, so we are expecting to see school board next week.

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

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Living in Society

Solon School Board Election 2019 – Take One

Polling Place

Six candidates announced campaigns for two seats on the Solon Community School District board of directors. The election is Nov. 5.

Terms of current board members Adam Haluska and Jim Hauer expire this year. Haluska is seeking reelection, Hauer is not.

Information about the candidates is scarce. This is the first of a couple of posts intended to share information discovered to help determine for whom I will vote.

The all-male school board came under criticism for implementation of the collective bargaining law signed by Governor Terry Branstad on Feb. 17, 2017. On March 13, Aimee Breaux of the Iowa City Press Citizen reported on a confrontational school board meeting using this lede:

Solon school officials should brace for teachers leaving the district if management insists on reducing insurance stipends, teachers union members warned during a particularly tense contract negotiation.

Teachers did leave the district and those contract negotiations remain an open wound.

School board elections are decided by a small slice of the electorate. 498 district voters, 10.05 percent of registered voters, decided the 2017 race that elected Tim Brown, Rick Jedlicka and Dan Coons to the current board with terms expiring in 2021. Low voter turnout means personal networking plays a greater role in candidate support than during a general election with paid advertisements. Networking information is not often public. In the past, groups in the community have been able to activate voters to support their favored candidates. There is no reason to believe networking will play a lesser role on Nov. 5.

This cycle, information will be available in a special article in the Solon Economist. “We will do our standard question and answer interviews prior to the election,” editor Doug Lindner wrote in an email. Some candidates told me via email they are working on the questionnaire. The article is expected in next week’s edition.

There will also be a public candidate forum hosted by the Solon Education Association and Solon Parent Teacher Organization on Tuesday, Oct. 22, from 6:30 until 8 p.m. at Palmer House Stable in Solon.

Yesterday I emailed the same information request to all six candidates, as follows:

School board candidates,

I’m seeking information about you to help me decide which two candidates to support in the Nov. 5 election.

Please take a few moments to reply to this email about your candidacy. I’d like a response by Friday, Oct. 18.

I didn’t see any information about your campaign in a Google search. If you have a campaign site, please provide a link.

Why are you running?

How would you like to change the direction of the board, if at all?

Please provide a brief resume of your skills and qualifications.

Have you ever held elected office previously? If so, which one?

I do plan to vote so any response will be helpful. Thanks in advance for your cooperation.
Regards, Paul

Thus far I’ve heard from three candidates, and hope to hear from them all before publishing results of my query.

Here’s who is running in this non-partisan race.

Note the election is framed as non-partisan, and many of us look for what skills candidates bring to the office more than party preference. Voters often have to compromise their partisanship in a school board election to pick the best of the field. I voted for Republican Adam Haluska when he was elected in 2015 for that reason. This year’s election is a new field of candidates and incumbency is not necessarily positive after the contract negotiations. I’ll take a look at what Haluska did on the board.

Finally, I mentioned the current all-male board. Voters told me they would like to see women on the school board. My position is we should vote for the best qualified candidates regardless of gender. If female candidates offer the best outcomes for the school board, they should be given fair consideration. If they represent the best of the six, they should be elected. Determining who is “best” is part of what I’m doing with these posts.

Thanks for reading. The current plan is posts about responses to my query, analysis of the public record of the incumbent, analysis of the Solon Economist article, and a post about what happens at the candidate forum.

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