About 11 years ago, the Brennan family was preparing to move from the Philadelphia suburbs to Iowa. They had a number of options to choose from—as long as the city was by a John Deere plant—but picked Ankeny because of the reputation of the public school system.
“I was hesitant because Iowa and Philadelphia are very different,” said Jenifer Brennan, who was born and raised in the Keystone State. “But we looked at the cost of living and we actually have family and friends here, and they all encouraged us to come here because, at the time, I had a preschooler and a kindergartner and they were like, ‘You cannot beat Ankeny schools. You cannot beat the schools in Iowa.’”
It was the same story for Erin Valerio-Garsow and her family, who moved to Ankeny in 2011. Thanks to the district’s shared course program with Des Moines Area Community College, two of Valerio-Garsow’s kids finished high school with nearly enough credits for an associate’s degree.
“I have three seniors this year, two graduating college, and one graduating from high school and one’s a whole year ahead because of the ability she had to take classes in Ankeny,” Valerio-Garsow said.
Tiffany Hoffman said she and her husband chose Ankeny and its public schools for similar reasons.
“We are born and raised [in Iowa], so when we got married and started having kids, it wasn’t even a second thought. It was just like we knew they were going to be in a good place and we assumed they’d have kind of the same education and opportunities that we had growing up, and that’s just not how it’s turned out,” Hoffman said. “So it’s frustrating and sad.”
These parents’ idyllic school district turned into a nightmare for a number of reasons, including the growing politicization of post-pandemic school board meetings, as hyperlocal issues have taken a backseat to national debates over masks, race, and sexuality.
Those disputes culminated during the 2021 school board elections as three conservative candidates—Sarah Barthole (who was personally endorsed by Gov. Kim Reyolds), Joy Burke, and Trent Murphy—were elected to the board, creating a right-learning majority. Murphy resigned in summer 2022 and was replaced by Joshua Palik.
Five seats are up for grabs in this year’s Nov. 7 school board election. Palik is now part of a five-person bloc of conservative candidates that includes board president Ryan Weldon, Nick Bourne, Stephanie Gott, and Amy Guidry. There are four left-leaning candidates—Katie Claeys (incumbent), Shelly Northway, Amber Romans, and Amy Tagliareni (incumbent)—and an unaffiliated fifth candidate with a questionable recent past. Both Guidry and Tagliareni are running for the final two years of Murphy’s term.
Heading into the election on Nov. 7, the board’s hard-right majority has received a barrage of criticism from local parents.
Hundreds showed up to a school board meeting earlier this year after the board tried to gut teacher contracts at a time when educator and staff burnout is extremely high.
“It’s just more knocks against our teachers who are already so bogged down,” Hoffman said. “We’re just not taking care of them, and that’s really scary and it’s frustrating.”
Board conservatives have also consistently rebuffed efforts to expand programs meant to help all students feel included and get an equal education, including LGBTQ students and students who have disabilities and/or mental health issues.
While she has been mostly pleased with Ankeny schools, Brennan has had concerns about how the district handles kids with mental health disorders, especially after a bad experience involving her son when he was in elementary school.
“I was told by staff that he is ‘psychotic,’ [and] ‘that he’ll end up in jail, yada, yada, yada,’ stuff like that,” Brennan said. “And as someone who holds a degree in a mental health field and used to work in mental health, I was pretty mortified with some of the statements that are flat out illegal to say to parents that were being said to me.”
Brennan’s son, who is now a ninth-grader at Southview Middle School, has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD).
“I will say the teachers in Ankeny are top-notch and they’re so caring and they try their best. It has always been the administration that I’ve had issues with,” Brennan said. “So I am on my own personal fight to get more education and better staffing for kids with these kind of issues.”
‘Labeled a troublemaker’
A lot of those fights have taken Brennan to the Ankeny School Board and its right-wing majority.
Every Ankeny School Board seat is at-large, and Brennan says she’s tried to establish a relationship with all sitting members, including the ones she may disagree with on a lot of issues.
“After all the COVID stuff, I’ve met with Sarah Barthole, I’ve met with Joy Burke. I have not met with Ryan Weldon, but I have tried to engage with him,” she said. “You get very generic answers back or you just don’t get an answer back. So I’ve been pretty active in trying to engage with the school board. I think I’m labeled a troublemaker with them because I’m pretty blunt.”
Brennan is not the only parent who feels like the pandemic and how people in Ankeny responded to it changed things for the worse.
“COVID hit and every unfortunate stereotype of what was happening in the world concerning COVID and the politicization of it just zeroed in on Ankeny,” said Lori Lovstad, who served on the Ankeny School Board from 2017-2021.
“And it was really, really unfortunate, because then, everything that you would’ve been expected to do as a school board member, which was look out for the safety and education of your students, protect them while they’re in your building, give them the opportunities they need, following the law that’s out there—all of a sudden, you were hated for doing that, where before, you were expected to do that,” she continued.
During Ankeny’s contentious 2021 school board meetings over masking and how to teach about race and LGBTQ identity in school curriculums, school board members were threatened and harassed by some residents.
Valerio-Garsow, a parent of 2020 and 2021 Ankeny graduates and one current senior, said the masking issue would not have been such a debacle if “the adults in the room would have just calmed the hell down.” But what was even more troubling to her was how the anti-masking argument evolved.
“It has turned into this, ‘Well, you can’t tell my kid they have to wear a mask,’ and, ‘You can’t tell my kid they’re misbehaving in class.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, whoa, wait a minute. Those two things are not the same,’” she said.
Another Ankeny parent, who requested anonymity to avoid potential professional backlash, said her family moved to the district in 2020. She continues to contemplate if that was the right decision.
“This is the thing I say most frequently, ‘I cannot believe I moved from Texas for this,’” the parent quipped.
‘This the role of a school board’
Lovstad, the former school board member who lost her seat during the 2021 conservative sweep, recalled what it was like serving on the board before the pandemic.
“The meetings were shorter, there wasn’t hardly any public input. I mean they weren’t live-streamed, hardly anybody ever went to them,” she said. “You’d get financial statements, you’d get updates on what the buildings were doing.”
Lovstad said the thing that used to cause a scandal or uproar was boundary changes or construction on new buildings. She remembers being the new person on the board in 2017 and inadvertently disrupting the status quo by questioning some board actions instead of just rubber-stamping decisions. She got company after the 2019 school board elections.
“We had a majority of people on the board who were more willing to ask questions beyond, ‘What’s the tax rate going to be next year? What’s the tax levy going to be? What are people’s property taxes going to be?’” Lovstad said. “And it opened up a lot of really good discussions, and I think freed the district to maybe address things that they weren’t encouraged to address before because nobody talked about them.”
The anonymous Ankeny parent who wonders if she made a mistake moving her family to Iowa from Texas pines for a reality in which school boards can just focus on actual policy instead of fears conjured up by a handful of parents who spend too much time online.
“Imaginary boogeyman. All of these imaginary boogeymen. There’s all of these imaginary boogeymen that are going to jeopardize my kid or my values,” she said.
“For me, my whole argument to that is: ‘Well wait, hold on. Do you know the role of a school board member?’ Part of me feels like the district should just do a fucking PSA and be like, ‘This is the role of a school board member. We’re not entertaining any of this other stuff.’”
‘DEI is absolutely important’
One of the post-masking flashpoints in Ankeny has been over the role of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), a catch-all term for the district’s ability to handle the diverse needs of its student population, from students with disabilities to students of color and those who are LGBTQ.
Prior to the far-right takeover of the board, the district embraced DEI.
“They were doing [things] to make sure that my children understood how to check their emotions,” Valerio-Garsow said.
But things shifted once the conservatives took charge. Early in 2022, the Ankeny School Board approved creating a DEI specialist position to help DEI director Ken Morris Jr., who is tasked with providing accommodations and responding to complaints for 12,600+ students and their families.
After a year of stalling on the hiring, conservative board members Barthole, Burke, Palik, and Weldon voted against posting the job, effectively eliminating the position.
Hoffman, who has three children in the school system, including a non-binary high school junior, was upset by the decision.
“I think the LGBTQ community in Ankeny is a lot bigger than they realize, and we’re more diverse. The bigger we grow, the more diverse we become. Ankeny is not an elite, white community,” Hoffman said. “We have a lot of minorities in our community. Not all of us are rich. … So not having representation for minority groups and things like that, it’s unfortunate and it’s very telling of where their morals are.”
To Brennan, the DEI situation is also another black eye on the district.
“DEI is absolutely important,” she said. “It is baked into the cake of a classroom culture to help kids navigate their emotions and be kind to one another. And when people say we don’t need to focus on that, it’s very frustrating as a therapist and an educator myself, because if they would spend any time in a classroom, all teachers do—besides teaching material—they have to navigate the kids’ social lives. You can’t just ignore it.”
‘Outside of our purveyance’
The Ankeny parents all have different ideas on how to get some idea of normalcy back to the district and most of those solutions start with the school board.
Suggestions range from getting a board in place that is willing to pay teachers and support staff more money to totally ignoring outside influences and making sure board meetings are about school business only.
“I appreciate freedom of speech. I appreciate all those things. You can come and talk about as many crazy things as you want in school board meetings,” said the anonymous parent. “Come and do it as much as you please. And the response should be, ‘This falls outside of our purveyance. Thank you for your time.’”
Hoffman said the outcome of this election will decide if her fifth-grader will stay full-time in the district or switch to an online school and attend class with Ankeny students only for electives like band and choir.
“We are at a place where the school board affects the lives of these kids and affects their success in school,” Hoffman said. “Ankeny touts itself as preparing these kids for success in the future, but I can tell you my teenagers do not feel in any way prepared for the future.
“They’re scared. They don’t want to stay in Iowa. And that starts at school, whether we like it or not,” she continued. “Thank God we have good teachers surrounding them that have made them feel safe and loved, but not everyone’s that lucky.”
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