If you want to retain Iowa teachers, vote in school board elections

A resident speaks up at a Waukee School Board meeting in May of 2022.

By Amie Rivers

October 24, 2023

Want to stop the mass exodus of quality teachers from leaving Iowa? Want to make sure they’re not only paid fairly, but feel like their district has their back?

Turns out, your vote on Nov. 7 could mean the difference between a school board that cares about teachers and a board that just wants to score political points.

“If we don’t want to see a further erosion of our public schools—to the point where it’s even more difficult to hire and retain educators—the school board plays an important role in protecting teachers from the worst of it,” said Kim Miller, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) UniServ director who bargains on behalf of teachers in Cedar Rapids.

City and school elections on Nov. 7 could decide teacher pay

Iowa’s city and school elections are coming up Nov. 7 (register, vote absentee and get more information here), and they’re historically the elections with the LEAST turnout.

Sure, you’re not voting for president (the big reason some folks vote), and you’re not even voting for governor or Congress (another big one). But it turns out that school board elections are important, particularly in a state that has gutted collective bargaining rights for public sector unions, for one big reason:

Per Iowa Code, the elected members of each school board set teacher salaries—negotiated with the unions—in their districts.

Of course, school boards only have a finite amount of money, even when you include what the state gives them, and Iowa Republicans have been mighty stingy in recent years despite sitting on a huge stash of taxpayer money. (Actually, they’re not just sitting on it; they’re giving it away to corporations instead.)

Nonetheless, board members can themselves be stingy, or decide to take a stand and pay teachers a living wage—and add in benefits, too.

“In places where school boards are open to bargaining permissive items, it certainly creates better working conditions and I believe addresses [teacher] shortage issues as well,” said Coy Marquardt, associate executive director of the ISEA. “That leads to better learning environments for their students.”

Even more important after collective bargaining gutted

It’s not just pay: Though state law says school boards only have to bargain on wages, many Iowa districts bargain on a wide range of other items, from time off to discipline procedures and more.

But after 2017, that wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

A few months after Iowa Republicans gutted collective bargaining for teachers and other public sector unions, the Cedar Rapids Education Association’s contract with the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) was up. The superintendent at the time initially wanted to throw everything but wages into the handbook, said Miller.

“That was their initial proposal—to strip all the proposed permissive items,” Miller said.

So Miller went to work. He had conversations with school board members and mobilized teachers and the wider community, who showed up to board meetings in matching shirts that read “We Are CRCSD” and “Stronger Together.”

“Frankly, it was empowering to the [union] membership,” Miller recalled. “Certainly, the school board is key.”

The same thing happened in Indianola in 2019, said Pete Clancy, UniServ director of several districts in and around Polk County. Once again, it was teachers together with community members showing up to multiple school board meetings.

“[The board] was going to strip their entire contract,” Clancy recalled. “There was tons of community support, and I think that did shift the needle for folks.”

Of the 30 districts Clancy works with across south central Iowa, 24 of them still have a full contract. Those districts are seeing that pay off, he said.

“We’re finding that places that have a full, robust master contract have an easier time retaining teachers and finding teachers,” Clancy said. “We absolutely are hearing—and superintendents have told me this—when interviewing prospective candidates, those candidates are asking about the master contract.”

And that means a majority of Iowa school districts are seeing the value in keeping robust contracts: Marquardt said a little over 60% of districts statewide have contracts that include more than just wages.

‘Hyperpartisan’ school elections, and how to change that

Keeping those contracts will be a fight, however.

Before there was Moms for Liberty, there were groups like No Left Turn in Education, Citizens for Renewing America, and more national, Koch-funded groups that tried inserting themselves into school board elections in Waukee and elsewhere, Clancy remembered from years past.

And he doesn’t think the era of what he called “hyperpartisan” behavior in nonpartisan school board elections will be over anytime soon.

“One of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now is political attacks on school districts and school boards,” Clancy said.

Those attacks, he noted, are more often about something people heard on TV or saw online, rather than issues that are directly affecting students and educators in their own towns.

“Listen to folks [who] are actually talking about students … [who] want to make their school district a place where all students can feel welcome and safe,” Clancy said.

Miller agreed, noting that there is a role for parents in the education process, but that teachers should be empowered and supported to do their jobs and teach the curriculum without ideological or partisan interference.

“Let the professionals be the guide as far as what is in front of kids,” he said.

And he hoped the state would start to get that message as well.

“The [Iowa] Legislature in particular needs to grow up,” he said.

  • Amie Rivers

    Amie Rivers is Starting Line's community editor, labor reporter and newsletter snarker-in-chief. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; now, she very much enjoys making TikToks and memes. Send all story tips and pet photos to [email protected] and sign up for our newsletter here.

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