Campaign Description

Here's what this campaign is about:

Ensuring equal opportunities in curriculum and programming for all students

Providing our students and faculty with safe, healthy, technology-driven learning environments

Committing to our neighborhood schools

Guaranteeing responsible stewardship of public funds

Celebrating the diversity within our district

Engaging parents to become active participants in the schools

Making data-driven decisions with measurable results

Email us at or call 331-6746

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Start of a Longer Journey

For the past four months this campaign process has been a bit like planning a wedding.  There's lots of busy work, lots of meetings. Some things go well, others are a little bumpy.....but overall, you're focused on the invitations, the DJ, the florist, the caterers, etc.  In fact, the whole event becomes a bit of a whirlwind and not surprisingly, most people get swept up in it.  Two days later, the gifts have been opened and most of the guests have gone home (except Aunt Phyllis, she always overstays her welcome).  The crazy thing is that after the cacophany and the excitement, you realize that you just got married and now the hard part begins.

That's pretty much how this feels right now.  It's been a long summer, with a sprint to the finish.  The party's over and now it's time to get to work.  We have so many varied issues facing our district, it's hard to know exactly where to begin.  It won't be easy, but I'm grateful that I've been given this opportunity to help to shape the schools our community deserves.  I want to be able to look back at this moment and recognize it as the time when we decided to move ahead to tackle these challenges and to commit to equity in facilities and programming that would give each student the tools they need to achieve their highest potential.

I've met so many great people throughout this summer and learned so much from each of them.  I am blessed to have so many resources to rely upon to help me really understand an issue and think about it from as many angles as possible.  I couldn't have done it without you.  We need to focus all of that positive energy and excitement away from the campaign and into the schools themselves....of course, I suspect I'm preaching to the choir. 

I've very much enjoyed getting to know the other candidates throughout this race.  After the last month's festivities I'm going through a bit of withdrawal, actually.  This whole experience reminds me of The Real World where nine unlikely strangers decided to run for school board. Thankfully for the most part no one stopped being nice and decided to get real.  Perhaps we'll have to schedule a reunion tour.

I am looking forward to working with Chris, Sally, Jeff, Tuyet, Patti and Marla.  I think we'll make a great team.  We won't agree on everything, but I have a great respect for all of you and I look forward to hopefully earning your respect and trust as well.  Let's collectively roll up our sleeves and get to work.  We have a golden opportunity to dictate our own future and there's a lot of work to do. I'm excited about our chances to ensure that all parts of the district begin to see tangible change and that all decisions are driven by a desire to heal the whole district and help every single student.  

Last, but certainly not least, I wish to thank the 8733 people who voted.  I've written before that my grandfather's greatest fear was apathy of American voters.  While 12% of registered voters doesn't sound that big, it's really quite impressive for a school board election.  By growing the pie, we increased the turnout and reached more people about the issues than ever before.  Record turnout means record interest.  Again, we need to harness that enthusiasm. we go, folks. The party is over, the gifts have been opened and now, because of you.....I've got a lot of thank you notes to write. Cheers!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been (and Thanks for Your Support)

Over the past four months, I've met a lot of new people, had innumerable conversations, taken part in five forums, multiple interviews, and consumed enough coffee that I'm getting java-scented thank you cards from Juan Valdez. I knew this would be hard on my family, but I didn't realize how hard.  Even the dog has started looking at me like I'm a stranger.  Through it all I've been happy to have a strong support network of old and new friends to rely on, to pep me up, to defend me, to cheer me on, and to believe in me.  I am truly grateful.  I will never be able to repay you all for the countless hours spent on this endeavor.

From the beginning, I promised to run a positive, issues-based campaign. I laid out what issues I believed in and went out with the help of my awesome campaign staff and my good friend and new MBA grad, Amber, and we tackled this seemingly impossible task. I don't know how the journey will  end today, but if nothing else I know I've formed a lot of great relationships.

I believe that we need to take control of this unique moment in our history and focus on our district's long-term future in both facilities and programming. We need to ensure that every child in every neighborhood has an opportunity to achieve their highest potential.  That's what a public school system should be about.  To have the perception that there are good and bad schools does a disservice to our students and our teachers and is unhealthy for our community.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way and the sentiment is district-wide.  The outpouring of support both in sweat equity and in donations to our cause was humbling. We couldn't have run our campaign without all of you.  Win or lose, I am forever grateful.

When the campaign finance reports came out last week, I did a little breakdown:
68% of our contributors gave under $100 with an average of $37.50
32% of our contributors gave over $100 with an average of $135
There were 127 total donors and I have known most of these people for much of my life.
By ZIP code 42% were from 52240, 4% were from 52241, 1% from 52244, 34% from 52245, 14% from 52246, 4% from 52317, 1% from other areas.

You can view all of the candidate reports of income and expenditures by clicking on each candidate's  individual dollar amounts HERE if you don't believe me. It's all public record now anyway.

Some have focused in on the record contributions this year. I think it speaks volumes of our community that collectively $35,000 was donated to help the candidates get the word out.  In our 24/7 media based society that's a tall order. People obviously do care about education and it's future in our district. I think it's a relatively small price to pay to raise awareness of the issues facing our students and teachers.

Speaking of the other candidates, I have a great respect for all of them. I've met nearly all of the spouses and children and I have just as much respect for them.  I know everyone has given it their all and it shows.  The physical, emotional and mental toll is incredibly difficult to deal with and I don't wish it on anyone.  Jim, Jason, Chris, Karla, Sara, Phil, Tuyet and Greg, my hat's off to all of you and whatever happens today, I've enjoyed getting to know you. Believe it or not, we share a common bond now. I think our little "reality show" is going to set an all time record for voter turnout.  No one can ever take that away.  Best of luck to all of you today!

What a long strange trip indeed.....see you at the finish line!

Now, get out there and vote.  Find your polling place HERE

Our community is at a crossroads.  I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work for all of our kids.  I hope you'll join me.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"Works Well with Others, but Socializes Too Much in Class"

I still have many of my report cards from when I attended Lemme Elementary, South East and City High.  Beside each grade given, there is a space for teacher comments.  There must have been certain canned phrases to select from because the following two comments are repeated over and over throughout the years:  "Works well with others" and "Socializes too much in class."

While these traits definitely were a blessing and a curse in the classroom, I think that my teachers all hit the nail on the head.  I do play well with others and, yes, I do socialize too much.  As a potential board member I hope these traits serve me well.  It may be too late for me to try to change.

I guess if you really want to know something, ask a teacher.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Remembering Bill

There is a great opinion piece in the Press-Citizen today by Jan Martins regarding special education needs in our district.  Stability, Safety and Continuity specifically are mentioned in the article.  I highly recommend giving it a look. Martins' piece is a perfect segue to share a story about a long time Iowa City entity named Bill. 

Bill Sackter was a man who, by today's standards, would be considered as special needs.  Bill lived in a time when institutionalization was the norm for people with special needs.  He spent much of his life in a very sheltered existence until a young film student at the University of Iowa named Barry Morrow met Bill and little by little broadened his horizons.  Listen to this audio clip of the story by clicking here: Barry and Bill

Barry Morrow went on to write the screenplay for the movie Rain Man.  Bill Sackter successfully ran Wild Bill's Coffee Shop which still exists to this day in North Hall on the University Campus.   There were even two movies made about Bill and Barry starring Mickey Rooney and Dennis Quaid.  

I remember seeing those films as a child and I remember getting to meet Mr Sackter on numerous occasions around the town.  My parents made a point to see that I was introduced to the man who became an Iowa City icon whether he was just out and about, working at the coffee shop, or playing Santa Claus to the children of Iowa City.

At the Friends of Community Inclusion Forum last Monday, I noted that the District Belief Statements list that each person has intrinsic worth. Also listed is that the understanding of and respect for human diversity are fundamental to individual rights and enrich community life. In Bill's case, all it took was one man to recognize that intrinsic worth and give Bill the tools to achieve his highest potential. 

Bill Sackter's intrinsic worth and his contribution to our community still exists today.  He personifies what Iowa City is about and is just as much a part of our city's history as Helen Lemme, Irving Weber or James Van Allen.  I am honored to have met him and believe his story to be one worth keeping alive in our collective consciousness as we consider our commitment to students with special needs. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Psst, pass it on.....

My WWII Marine Corps grandfather had a book that someone gave him called The Grandparents Book.  If you're not familiar with it, I highly recommend you check it out.  It's full of introspective questions that you're supposed to take the time to sit down and handwrite your answers to.  The idea is to share the answers with your grandchildren so that they can get to know you.  Long story short, grandpa was a pretty quiet man and for whatever reason, he never shared his book with us grandkids. After he passed away in 1999, all of us received a photocopied version of his book.

As I read through it, trying desperately to understand a man who had never opened up to any of his family, I was struck by one question in particular. Under the section for History and Politics, in response to a question about what issues and causes he felt strongly about, he answered "Apathy of American voters.  Democracy will fail if 70% of eligible voters do not: 1. Inform themselves and 2. Vote.  Apathy is one of the reasons for the sad state of politics today - we get what we deserve."

This is true of school board elections in particular.  People don't inform themselves and sadly, people don't vote. Typically here in our district, we can only expect 4500-5000 voters to vote in school-related elections.  That's less than 8% of eligible voters.  Sad, indeed.

I believe and have stated numerous times that schools are the most important public service that we can provide to our citizens.  Roads, sewers and stoplights are important, but people don't move to an area because of those things.  They move to an area because of the schools.

Our schools prepare our kids for their future.  Our schools teach our kids to think critically and analytically.  Our schools provide the social structure where our kids learn about the world beyond their  community.  Our schools can provide inspiration and teach not how our world is, but how it ought to be.

We owe our entire district and all of our kids a fair shot at a good beginning to the rest of their lives.  We owe them safe facilities that inspire and nurture them.  We owe them creative programming that allows them to achieve their highest potential. It is our duty.

I feel that if you believe in something strongly, you should roll up your sleeves and work for it.  I believe that if you feel that there is injustice, you should work to make it right.  I feel that you should advocate for those that can not advocate for themselves.  That's why I'm doing this and that's why I want you to get out and vote.

If you're tired of feeling like it should be better for our kids and teachers, get out and vote.

If you're fed up with the back and forth tit-for-tat in this district, get out and vote.

If you believe that our entire district deserves to have a bright future, get out and vote.

If you are optimistic that we can be more transparent and communicate better, get out and vote.

If you believe we can do better and should, then get out and vote.

Voting is the only way that anything is going to get better.  No matter who you vote for, just get out and vote.  Apathy is the enemy.....

Pass it on.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not."
-Dr Seuss from The Lorax

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ah yes, the North Liberty Question....

One not at all suprising frequent question I’ve encountered over the course of the last few months, especially from my friends in North Liberty is, “What are your thoughts on the new high school?”
Here’s my reply to a recent Facebook inquiry of that nature….

Regarding North Liberty, I understand the crisis of confidence in the district to follow through on the North Liberty high school.  I’m excited that once infrastructure needs (sewer, roads, water, etc) are taken care of, there will finally be motion forward on getting spades in the ground and starting construction. I suspect that, even then, folks will be skeptical until the doors finally open.

As it is, I am told by the facilities people at the ICCSD that it is highly unlikely that a high school could be completed prior to 2018….and that’s if everything goes right on schedule. I suspect North High will be completed somewhere between 2018 and 2020.  I sincerely hope no later than that, as there are too many young children in North Liberty that by then, will be matriculating into high school.  That being said, I am not a facility planner, an engineer or an architect. These are only estimations. 

With the Facilities Master Plan that was passed on July 23, there are numerous projects that need to occur to accommodate the current and projected growth of our entire district at ALL levels. Passing that plan was critical to getting started right away. No plan, no construction.  That being stated, I’m anxious to see the timetable that Mr Murley will present in November.

One major focus that we should have at this point is to work to regain public confidence because much of this stems from the lack thereof.  Whether it’s a lack of a high school in North Liberty, un-air conditioned old elementary schools, lack of new elementary schools in areas of continuous growth, or repeated discussions of facility closure, people throughout the district feel (rightfully so) a lack of trust. The best way to regain that trust is to actually follow through and complete the projects we have committed to. Doing it with transparency every step of the way is essential as well.

Consider that during the massive Kinnick Stadium project on the U of I campus a few years ago, there were active webcams monitoring the progress through all phases of the construction. I would love to see inexpensive webcams utilized the same way throughout our district so that people can log on and see the projects occurring and can watch with excitement and anticipation as projects begin and progress toward completion.

In addition, I’d like to see a comprehensive chronological list of projects that are planned with start dates and completed dates listed prominently on the district web site. Member so the public could then monitor how the district is keeping on the path to our future. Concrete and tangible progress is hard not to be excited about.

If the end result of our district-wide face lift is that all corners of the ICCSD have the new, expanded or renovated schools to accommodate growth and provide and equitable educational experience, then we will have regained the trust of the entire district. Right now, we have two of the top 1000 public high schools in the nation. Our goal should be three.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Carver and Borlaug....

And now, for something completely different....a bit of trivia with relevance to our school district and a deeper message about our community.

Before you read any further, read this amazing bit of trivia: Carver and Borlaug   There may be a quiz.

It seems our very own Iowa hero Norman Borlaug who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts to combat world hunger is only two generations removed from George Washington Carver's famous pioneering work in agriculture. All it took was one woman guiding and advocating for the young Carver to create a ripple that saved over a billion lives.

Here's how this relates to our district.....

We currently have an alarming performance disparity between minority students and their peers when measured at all levels.  Across our district, there is an 30% or greater disparity in proficiency in Reading and Math.  See for yourself on page 5 of this document: District Report Card

There are a few ways to address this issue.  First and foremost we need to go to teachers and see what they think.  No initiative is going to work without their input and enthusiasm.We also will have to enlist parents and community leaders, because we already know that the most powerful changes start with the broadest base of support.  I do have a few ideas of my own though, if you were wondering.....

  • I believe expanding access to Pre-K is critical.  Ensuring kids get started with a solid foundation in reading and math concepts will help to streamline their kindergarten matriculation.  If you start off behind your peers, it'll never be easy to catch up.

  • I believe we need to actively recruit recently graduated minority teachers from across the country. This effort should be fully funded by the district.  Good healthcare, low crime, great schools and a university town should be attractive to many.  Having positive role models in teaching and administrative roles is a must. 

  • We can create a "career cluster program" to have minority students mentored by teachers who are people of color in order to foster a love of teaching in our own students who may show interest. Working with community groups we can commit to scholarships as well for minority students that are pursuing an education degree with intent to teach in the area.  Recruiting from within may be more powerful than recruiting elsewhere.

  • As minority teachers leave the district, we must truly dig into why they left as part of the exit interview process. We need to know what we can be doing better to retain these talented individuals and role models and we need to commit to fixing it. 

For us not to insist on every single child reaching their highest potential means that we are failing all of our students. We need to try harder, because what we're doing isn't good enough.

So which child is it?  Which student just needs us to try a little harder?  Which one, through a small act of kindness like Etta Mae Budd's advocacy for Carver, may go on to do great things?  Which of our current students is going to be the one that changes the world?  Let's find out.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Small Schools Anonymous

Hi, my name is Brian and my children attend a small school. That school is Shimek.

Shimek elementary only has about 200 students which makes it one of the smallest schools in the district.   Only 91 of those students live within one mile of the school.   If it weren't for the fact that Shimek serves the entire area reaching out to Newport Road and there are no other alternatives that are nearby, I'm sure Shimek would be targeted frequently for closure.

Traditionally, Lincoln enrolls about 250 students.  93 of those students live within one mile of the school. Like Shimek, it serves an area that really doesn't have another alternative facility within a reasonable distance.  I know that Lincoln has been mentioned at times in sentences that end with closure, but for the life of me, I can't imagine what alternative facility those 93 students who live near Lincoln would attend.

Then there's Hills.  108 students attend Hills.  39 live within one mile.  There is no alternative to Hills Elementary school in the immediate area.  Hills is the only school for roughly a 7 mile radius.  Their community has taken exciting steps to address infrastructure needs and is poised for growth.  That school serves a large area. I think that to consider closing Hills would be extremely short-sighted.  Remember, 20 years ago Penn was the only school in North Liberty.

Which brings me to Mann.  Mann has about 250 students enrolled each year over the past decade.  105 live within one mile of the school. After the anticipated renovations that are part of the Strategic Facility Plan approved by the Board in July, it is projected that Mann will be able to house over 400 students. Mann serves the historic GooseTown neighborhood and, like Lincoln, doesn't really have a nearby walkable alternative.

I want to share these thoughts because as we move toward new, larger,  more peripherally-located and cost-efficient schools as part of addressing our district's explosive growth over the previous and coming decade, we must still recognize that there is intrinsic value to maintaining a small school when and where there are no other alternatives.  Although larger schools are more cost efficient to operate, the true test of a neighborhood school is its sense of community.  Being able to walk in as a parent and have the principal and the school secretary able to recognize you by face and know where your children are at is comforting.  There is no dollar value that can reflect that.

Exciting changes are about to occur with our district-wide facelift.  Let's ensure that we don't lose track of our roots.

Hi, my name is Brian and my children attend a small school....

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Video Killed the Amateur Blogger

Thought I'd check in to invite you to watch this brief video to introduce you, constant blog reader, to me.  One take, no editing.  My apologies for the Umms and Ahhs.  This wasn't as easy as it sounds.

And now, on with the show....

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Falling into the Donut Hole

Well, I guess I did it.  I made a mistake.  I went to City High last Friday before the teachers' first scheduled staff meeting and took some Daylight Donuts and a card table.  I checked in at the office and set up my table by the north entryway in order to take the opportunity to be present to meet teachers and hear their primary concerns regarding the facility and the upcoming school year.  I guess I thought that the only way to actually understand the needs in a facility is to go there and ask the people who work there.  Mea culpa.

You see, up until this Monday morning, there was no clearly stated district policy regarding candidates visiting a facility.  Most, if not all, of the nine candidates have toured numerous facilities in order to see firsthand what is needed at each location.  If the campaign process is a prolonged job interview, then it seems pretty smart to me to actually go out and learn about the job, just in case you end up getting hired.

I know other candidates have toured other facilities with me with the school principals present.  There was no indication from our administration that visiting a school was frowned upon. This is entirely evident in that numerous principals were willing to make themselves available for candidates to tour their respective facilities.

I did not file a facility room request at City High because I did not use a room and I was not holding an actual listening post for the public. My public listening posts have been at the Coralville Public Library, the ICPL, the North Liberty Community Center, the Senior Center, and Coach's Corner.

Which brings me to the next thing, Hills.  It has been reported that I held a public listening post at Hills on Tuesday, August 13.  That is not correct.  I visited Hills that evening from 6-7 pm at the invitation of the Coalition for a Greater Hills Community who held their meeting at Hills Elementary that night.  I had contacted them to learn more about the community of Hills and hear their concerns.  I would assume that since the door was unlocked and they were there, that they had filed a proper facility room request.

It is disheartening to me that my ethics have been called into question by individuals and media outlets over the last two days. I am committed to running a positive campaign focused on the issues.  I will not let these insinuations and allegations sway me from my real focus, which is our children and their education.  They deserve it.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How to NOT Reinvent the Wheel

There has been an ongoing discussion about magnet schools and how they may play an important role in helping us, as a district, to solve our socioeconomic disparities in elementary schools. I truly feel this is one way that, when paired with comprehensive redistricting as new and newly renovated elementary schools come online, that we can work proactively to greatly reduce the existing significant disparities in poverty in our schools. However, there's a lot of concern among parents from all across the district that as we begin to implement the recently passed diversity policy, that means their child will have to get on a bus and be shipped to some other school.  The good news is that we don't have to reinvent the wheel.

Free or reduced lunch (FRL) is how we measure poverty in schools. Years of education research show that when a school creeps above 40-50% of the children qualifying for FRL, that school performance, as measured by standardized test scores, begins to fall (the merits of theses tests is a WHOLE different discussion).  Due to No Child Left Behind, this can lead to schools being labelled as a School in Need of Assistance (SINA).  Having even one SINA school should be unacceptable to us as a district and as a community.  Our recently passed Diversity Policy is an attempt to limit the percentages of FRL in any one elementary to 15% above the district-wide mean, which, at this time, would be mean a target FRL in the mid-40's or below.

Tackling disparities in poverty to improve school performance is not a new concept.  This issue has been dealt with by 80 other school districts across the country.  Many, like LaCrosse WI, were pioneers in this realm, so our task is not nearly as difficult as theirs was.  The good news is that we can go to them to find how they tackled this issue and what pitfalls and problems they encountered without bringing in more expensive consultants.

Since magnet programs are a hot topic, lets discuss those. Magnet elementary schools are essentially schools that provide K-6 education along with some added incentive.  On a smaller scale this might be as simple as having a prairie field campus similar to the one at Shimek. Or perhaps an outdoor classroom and arboretum like at Coralville Central.

On a grander scale, this might mean asking the teachers and the public what types of programs might interest them and entice them to consider enrolling their child in a school other than then one closest to their home.  Some examples of this are a year-round calendar school, a Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) school, a young writers workshop school, or perhaps a language immersion school where children receive a multilingual education.   The idea is that we could design programs within the walls of existing elementary schools that would entice and give incentive to parents to enroll their children there.

Champaign, IL is a community that is especially interesting to me.  It's a Big Ten university town.  It had elementary schools that had been labelled as failing.  It had similar issues regarding high concentrations of poverty.  It had many facility needs that had to be tackled as part of a long term plan. They are currently going through phases of new construction and renovations just as we will be in the near future.  Sound familiar?

After involving the community to determine what types of magnet programs might be successful, they decided on starting a STEM program, an international education school and a MicroSociety school.  Check it out here:

The enrollment process is easy to understand and the process of assigning children to facilities is transparent.  In other words, the parents have choices and the rules are clear and transparent to the community.  Interested yet?

There three stages to the process: Review, Rank, Request.
REVIEW: In January and February, parents get the opportunity as their child enters a grade school to visit the different schools and meet the administration, teachers and parents already there to learn about the different programs.
RANK: By March, parents submit their FIVE top school choices in order of preference.  Each family may use different criteria for their choices. It's up to them.
REQUEST: Submit the registration forms. The district then uses four criteria to assign children based on Proximity, Siblings, Transportation and Waiting Lists.  See here:

OR...if you like video instead of reading the web site, try clicking on the picture of the little guy with the yellow binoculars on the upper right of the page at the link above.

The point is that most parents get their first or second choice. In addition, the administration has been able to level the FRL statistics across their district and previously failing schools have shown vast improvements in test scores.  They are also able to limit class sizes and limit busing which provides a better classroom experience for students and teachers while committing to decreased transportation costs.

This may not be the way that we decide to go as a community, but the status quo is not acceptable.  We are on the verge of big shifts in our thinking about schools.  The good news is we don't have to go it alone.  Other districts can help us learn from their experiences. We just have to be willing to ask.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

...With a Little Help From my Friends

Those Beatles were indeed wise....

From the beginning, I've believed that this campaign is about the whole district and that my relationships with individuals representing the entire district would be something I could rely on.  I had no idea, though what incredible people I have working with me.

You see, this morning, I woke up in Nevis, MN at a cabin on Lake Belle Taine.  After trying to relax for the past week while blogging, making phone calls, reading and answering questions in preparation for the next month, I was leaving my wife and children behind to work diligently for the next week on the campaign back in Iowa City.

Leaving was not easy. My son, Cooper, asked, "If this is about the kids, then why do you have to leave your kids?"  His sister, Grace, was sobbing...even though minutes before, she'd been singing the candygram song Will Ferrel sings to James Caan in Elf (gotta love 7 yr olds).  I was pretty distraught and down for much of the ten hour drive home and the standstill traffic on 35W south of the twin cities didn't help either.

Imagine my surprise to return to see all of the Kirschling yard signs and a calendar chock full of meetings and listening posts.  It appears that in my absence, my own elves have been busy in the workshop. I feel like someone threw me a welcome home party.

I am thankful to all my good friends who believe in what we are doing.  I look forward to meeting those of you that I'm scheduled with over the past week.  I am re-energized and ready to roll for the next month.  Lets focus on the sprint now, so we can win the marathon that comes next. We've got a lot of work to do, but if we continue to focus on the well being of the entire district, then our efforts will bear fruit.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  I can never repay you all for what you've done for me.

"I get by with a little help from my friends...with a little help from my friends."
-Lennon and McCartney

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

E Pluribus Unum...

I'm sitting up here in the north woods of Minnesota with my family taking a brief vacation before heading home for the last month leading up to the September 10th election for School Board. I went out fishing this morning with my son, Cooper, and after we caught a few decent-sized bass (and released them, thank you) we headed home.  I hate to admit, but much of the time I was chewing on the big issue of how to really move ahead in our school district.  We have a LOT to cover in a little time and the facilities master plan was only the first step.

You see, the type of changes we have to make are going to take optimism and enthusiasm.  It's also going to take public confidence.  This can only be gained by involving the public voice from the very beginning.

Anyhow, as we were returning to the cabin from our morning fishing expedition, it dawned on me that right there on our U.S.currency is the answer to my dilemma.  E Pluribus Unum.  Out of many, one.  You see we've been going about this all wrong.

For example, the ONE District facilities master planning process was long and drawn out. It involved a planning committee made up of individuals from across the community who put in many, many hours over many months of time to work with BLDD to design multiple scenarios for our district.  The scenarios were then presented to the public multiple times for their input. A district-wide phone survey was done to gather even more public input.  The scenarios shifted and re-shifted, then a final presentation was made to the Board for their consideration.  Information Gathering, Recommendation to the Board, Decision. And yet....many still feel that their voices were not heard.

I think that going forward to the next big decisions with regard to the Diversity Policy and a broader redistricting effort, we must take the process we used for the facilities planning and strive to make it better still.  There has been MUCH improved transparency as of late and the effort to include the public was significantly better than previous attempts in past years, however, there is always room for improvement.

I think that perhaps what we need to do going forward is:

  • START with gathering community and teacher input through district-wide surveys by phone, focus groups, social media, email and snail mail.  We need to analyze and utilize that data to spend time focusing on what the public wants, not what their assumed wants are. 
  • Next, we need to go out and gather a committee of diverse community members who can act as not only representatives, but also liaisons to their neighborhoods, organizations, PTOs, etc. In this way, we can involve community members in a cohesive effort in which their voices are heard in a transparent fashion BEFORE any recommendations or decisions are made.  These meetings must be held in the open and recorded to serve as public record every step of the way. The information must flow both ways.
  • The committee must be given a clear directive from the community and not put into a position where they are trying to determine what the community wants. They can then focus on achieving their goal, not trying to reach a shifting goal line. 
  • Finally, a recommendation can be made to the Board for their consideration.  To go out of order may give the perception and feel that the public isn't being heard or worse, ignored. 
These next decisions and processes must start with a massive public relations campaign from day one. These are groundbreaking changes we are trying to make and it will take a true campaign on the part of the Administration in order to get it done.  The campaign must be aimed at ground-up ideas and implementation, NOT top-down. The most powerful changes in history started with the voices of many.   Out of many, one....One district with one unified direction.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Teacher, I have a question......

"Happy wife, happy life."  That's the unofficial advice given by many married men to each other.  Often, this phrase is paired with a knowing wink of one who has dared to go against sage advice.  Those of us who have visited the dog house for something we've done, learn this lesson quickly.

In many ways this wisdom can be applied to our schools.  Although it doesn't really have that poetic ring to it, "Happy teachers, happy schools" isn't a bad credo to strive for.  I suppose it was my wife, the daughter of an Iowa City teacher and an English Ed graduate herself who continually reminds me of BOTH of these cardinal rules.

When I sit down and share with her my ideas for magnet school programs to give parents choices in their child's school calendar or pedagogy, her frequent response is, "What do the teachers think?"

When I share ideas that I have for lessening the achievement gap between minority students and their peers, she stops me curtly and asks, "Have you asked any teachers?"

When I get excited talking about the possibility of equity in our facilities, building new schools, broad redrawing of school boundaries and creative ways to implement the district's new diversity policy, her guessed it...."How do the teachers feel?"

I was reminded of this in a recent meeting when a teacher in the district shared with me that he understands the diversity policy and the research behind trying to equilibrate socioeconomic status in our schools.  He gets it. He understands how years of  data supports that children are most influenced by their peers and that the resources in parent sweat equity and finances are greater in middle income schools.  What he's concerned about, is that if teachers are the ones in the classroom, will they be a part of developing the plan for diversity policy implementation?

Another teacher friend of mine who has taught at both City and West as well as at the elementary level, recently confided in me that he really didn't need a new smart board for his classroom. He needed smaller class sizes and new textbooks.  His teaching needs didn't require the smart board as much as another classroom might.  He was thankful, but perplexed, as to why he, the teacher, wasn't asked what he needed.

A good writer always returns to what he knows (or so I'm told, since I don't profess to be a good writer).  I work at the VA hospital with veterans and I enjoy military history immensely.  I've often heard stories of bad officers and their follies, as well as leaders who earned, rather than demanded the respect of their troops. (Funny thing about titles and rank....people who insist on being referred to by a title or rank, usually are the least deserving of the accolades....something to ponder).  The best loved and most successful military leaders in our history were the ones who went to the frontline soldiers and asked them point blank "What do you need to fight this battle?"

So, here we stand. Our district is perched at the precipice of doing great things.  We can start to move forward and take groundbreaking steps that are reflective of who we are as a community and who we wish to be.  We can start to balance our district to ensure our children will have modern, technology driven, environmentally friendly 21st century schools and equal opportunities regardless of their street address.   We can start to decrease the achievement gap between minority students and their peers.  We can look ahead to begin shaping growth in our little corner of the world.  It's going to have to start from the ground up, though....not from the top down.  To do that we are going to have to not just turn to the community, we need to enlist the teachers.

I very humbly admit, I don't know everything about education. I do know a lot about my community. I do know how to listen.  I have faith that we can do this and we can tackle these conversations. I believe we will emerge a stronger school district and community with pride in what we've done.  My wife is's all going to have to start with the teachers.  So, Teacher, I have a question....what do you think?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Why on Earth am I Running for School Board?

When I launched this campaign for school board back in May, I knew that I would be asked many, many questions throughout the course of the summer.  Many of those questions I was prepared for.  Others forced me to reexamine my own beliefs.  The question, though, that I most often receive is “Why on Earth are you doing this?”  Hopefully, I can try to answer that here. 

A little background first….
My wife and I are both products of the Iowa City Community School District.  She attended Lucas Elementary. I attended Lemme. We both went to South East and City High.  After receiving my degree in Biology from the University of Iowa, I moved away to the south side of Chicago to attend optometry school.  We then moved to Cleveland OH to complete residency training at the VA Hospital. 

Needless to say, Chicago and Cleveland were eye-opening experiences.   My first patients were from the projects, community clinics, and union health centers.  I had never really seen, let alone been immersed in, that type of poverty.  I had never experienced a community where the public schools are failing.  I had never been exposed to so many different cultures and just assumed that everyone viewed the world through the Iowa City prism (bad vision reference, I know).  

Most importantly I had never really, truly appreciated the community we live in and the strong commitment we have to our schools. After finishing my training, it was an easy decision for my wife and I when we decided to return to Iowa City to start our family.  The weather might be crazy, but hey, at least we knew the schools were good. Right?

When we returned to Iowa City in 2000, we bought our first house on Irving Ave based on proximity to my employment, neighborhood vibe and price.  We knew that there was a relatively new school (Weber) close by, but didn’t really pay any attention to things like test scores or FRL percentages because we just knew that when we had children, the district would ensure that every child, regardless of address would have a shot.

When we did finally start our family, we moved to the NE side of Iowa City to live in a neighborhood that had developed on the exact location where we had camped in the early 90’s. We were pleased to find that the school closest to us (Shimek) was only 1.3 miles away. We were busy raising our son and daughter and dealing with daycare, bills and jobs at UIHC. All was good, even the Hawkeyes were doing well.

Then, around that time, I began to worry about the growing perception that something was wrong in our district, especially at our older schools. I became involved with the City High Alumni Association in an effort to work hard to contribute to my alma mater. After all, my children were going to be students there some day.  That involvement has led to multiple opportunities to be active in bigger district discussions.  I very much enjoyed my time there and am happy that City High remains a vibrant, diverse community.

So why am I running? 
Isn’t it enough to do nearly a decade serving my alma mater?  Aren’t I busy enough seeing patients at the VA Hospital and in Riverside? Am I not busy raising two kids and all the extracurricular activities that go along with that?  You bet I am…..

However, as Iowa City natives, my wife and I remember the time when our district was forward thinking.  When we were once proactive about building schools with an eye toward the future and where growth could and would be.  Most of our elementary schools and especially City and West were once upon a time “out in the middle of a cornfield.”  Iowa schools were consistently ranked among the top 2-3 nationally and our district was tops in the state.   We used to be forward thinking in our educational strategies and Iowa-centric in our philosophies about what type of graduates we wanted to produce.

We’ve had explosive growth (20% in enrollment since 2003) in our district over the past two decades and have, in many ways, become reactive, rather than proactive, about building our schools.   For years there has been a lack of a clear long-term plan for our district and the growth isn’t slowing.

Meanwhile, an achievement gap has been growing between schools, especially at the elementary level.  Suddenly, test scores are the focus and there is the perception that some schools are better to attend than others.  When coupled with the achievement gap between Hispanic and African American students and their Caucasian or Asian classmates, we are failing a good portion of our students. We CAN do better and we OWE every student a fair shot at a great education.

There has also been a growing inequity between the facilities throughout the district.  Equity is not the same as equal, but it does achieve what in healthcare is referred to as the “standard of care.”  Air-conditioning, functioning technology and a safe, clean environment inside and outside of the school should be the standard of care.

As we move ahead with our strategic long-term facility planning, I am excited about the prospect of, once again, having a roadmap to the future for our district.  The RPS vote gives us the ability to start right away on building and renovating.  In short, we can become proactive once again.

The district faces many challenges and critical decisions over the next few years.  These decisions will have a lasting effect on our schools and our community.  I was raised here.  I’m raising my kids here.  I’m going to retire here.  I want to be a part of the critical decision making that is happening right at this moment in time when we try to seize the reigns and move forward. 

We need to build on the strong traditions of the past, but with and eye toward the future. We have to commit to healthy, high-performance, cost-effective 21st century classrooms that will prepare our graduates for any avenue.  We must also try, when possible, to preserve our traditions at our current facilities.

It is easy to get caught focusing on the minutiae of the moment or the hot-button topic of the week in our district.  However, we have to realize that year after year, we continue to produce high-caliber, tech-savvy, critical thinkers that are well prepared for whatever comes next.  THAT should be our focus.

I truly believe that we are judged by how we treat the least among us.  As a public school system we need to double-down on ensuring ALL of our students get an equal opportunity to succeed. We need to make our decisions focused on that goal while being fiscally responsible with the public funds entrusted to the district.

The Iowa City School District gave me all the tools to succeed and the most influential educators in my life were found here.  I very much want to be a part of our unwavering commitment to public education.  There are difficult, exciting decisions ahead that will affect our community for generations to come.  I feel I have the historical background and the clinical skills to fairly and objectively make those decisions in a collegial and civil manner with other members of the board.

If schools are a barometer for community health, then our community is at a crossroads.  Let’s get to work. I hope you’ll join me.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world"  -Mahatma Ghandi

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The BIG Question

Tonight the current Board members will be weighing in on which facilities plan they support.  A? B? Perhaps a combo of the two?  I recently received a question from a local parent and was asked to respond in a blogosphere forum where my answer would be compared to the other non-incumbent candidates. Hope I get points for honesty. Here is the question and my response.

If you were on the board right now, would you vote to close any schools as part of a long-term facilities plan?

The short, honest answer to this question is yes.  When school closure is considered in the context of strategic, long-term comprehensive facilities planning, all scenarios must be weighed and analyzed carefully. Looking ahead to the predicted future needs of the district, facility closures should be considered ONLY IF the following criteria are met:

·    They are considered as part of a broader redistricting plan that contributes to improved facility equity throughout the district.
·   New elementary school constructions and renovations must be completed before any closures occur.
·      There is a clear opportunity to reduce operational costs to the district, therefore ensuring long-term fiscal responsibility.
·      Plans for a school closure are communicated in a transparent fashion to the affected families and neighborhoods with a reasonable proposed time frame of no less than 3 years.
·      Affected families are included in determining a clear plan as to where students will be assigned to attend school at the end of that time period, therefore allowing families to acclimate or adjust their future planning.
·     Teachers at an affected school are included in the conversation and there is open communication regarding future facility teaching assignments.
·     The closure must align with “Child-Centered: Future-Focused” and affected families will have the opportunity to experience long-term benefits to their child’s education.

Usually discussions about closing schools are reserved for districts that are in decline.  Our district is thriving and growing.  With planned commitments to build more cost effective, environmentally friendly 21st century schools we have to try our best to predict demographics and enrollment patterns many decades into the future.

I believe that we should be committed to our existing neighborhood schools, but at this moment in time, we have the opportunity to be proactive about the future of our district.  Provided that the above criteria are met, and the best interest of the entire district is the compass used in our decision making process, then, yes, I would cast that vote.

Friday, July 19, 2013

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood!

Recently, we have heard the term "neighborhood school" quite a bit, specifically based on the results of district wide surveys which showed a 63.8% majority of those surveyed felt that even smaller elementary schools in the district should remain open.

Consider these items:
  • Growing up and attending Lemme Elementary when it was still a relatively new school (I'm aging myself here) most of the students attending were within walking distance of the school.  There were some who lived out on what was then called Rural Route 5 by Fairway Golf Course (now Windsor Ridge).  My friends who grew up on RR5 have recently reaffirmed to me that Lemme was considered by them to be their "neighborhood school" although they could not walk there and relied on bussing.

  • Shimek enrolled 199 students last year.  Of those children, 92 are eligible for bussing and  only 40 live within 0.5 mile.  Our family drives 1.3 miles to Shimek and many parents drive 5 or more miles.  Most parents at Shimek refer to it as their "neighborhood school," although relatively few can walk there.

  • Many of my friends whose kids attend Lincoln live in the Manville Heights area, but then others live north of I-80 in the region stretching all the way to the Coralville Reservoir.  Of the 246 students enrolled last year, 126 rode busses and only 65 came from the surrounding 0.5 mile radius.  I know my friends both north of I-80 and in Manville Heights refer to Lincoln as their "neighborhood school"

  • Longfellow enrolled 334 students last year from the immediate surrounding area as well as the Windsor Ridge area east of Scott Blvd, 3 miles away.  82 (24.6%) of those kids are bussed and 182 live within 0.5 mile radius. 

  • Hills Elementary is the only school in Hills.  108 were enrolled there last year.  62 rode busses and only 28 lived within a half mile. It is truly a neighborhood school because it's the only school in the community. 

I suppose the point I'm trying to make with regard to defining neighborhood schools, is that while the term neighborhood school seems to indicate a geographic proximity, in reality many students live nowhere near their perceived neighborhood school.  In our own district 7,080 elementary school children enrolled last year and 2,666 (37%) rode busses while only 3400 (just under 50%) lived within 0.5 miles of a school. 

Perhaps the term neighborhood school is, in fact, a misnomer.  Perhaps a more appropriate term to use is community school, which implies that the schools are not necessarily bound by geography, but are rather a small close-knit community within the district where families feel a connection to their teachers, administration and other families. 

Committing to our neighborhood schools as I have listed as a core belief of this campaign implies that we should work to find ways to use our existing elementary facilities as best we can in order to create communities that exist throughout our district where students and their families can feel at home.  

One caveat though, is that these communities are the people of a school, not the actual bricks and mortar of the building.  When a group of students is supported by strong parent involvement and caring teachers, those children will succeed as long as that strong community and support follows them.

Consider for example, going to summer camp. The other campers in your cabin are your community, not the cabin itself.  Your cabin mates are your closest relationships within the larger total pool of campers.  If the cabins are equitable (more on this later...) then the camp experience should be pretty comparable for all campers, regardless of what cabin they are assigned. When you sign up for summer camp, you sign up for the enriching, fun experience of attending a camp and you know that no matter what cabin you are assigned, you will have the opportunity to have a great camp experience. THis can be considered as a great analogy for our district. (Can you tell that our oldest was at YMCA Camp Wapsie last week?)

As we look ahead beyond the ongoing facilities discussions to implementation of the ICCSD Diversity Policy, obviously we will be reexamining boundaries and considering a multitude of creative options and ideas.  We aren’t the first district to do this.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.   We DO, however, have to realize that our concept of neighborhood schools may no longer be defined by walkability, but more by the close-knit community that each school represents.