Twenty years ago, Kaycee Schippers moved to Johnston for its schools. Her daughter, now 27, went through the district and now her 16-year-old son is in school at Johnston too.
But during an interview this week, she said she wouldn’t move into the Johnston Community School District today.
The school board, Schippers said, has gotten too extreme for her. Three current board members—Derek Tidball, Clint Evans and Deb Davis—are connected to Moms For Liberty, a nationwide far-right group behind the dramatic increase in book bans, and have a habit of standing in the way of progress for the schools.
“We need school board members who will do what’s best for the school district, who will do what’s best for all students, not just the ones that look like them and believe the things that they believe,” Schippers said.
School board elections on Nov. 7 will determine whether conservative, Moms For Liberty-backed candidates win the majority and take control of Johnston’s seven-member school board. They need only to win one of the four seats up for grabs.
Schippers is most concerned about how conservative members would dictate the curriculum used to teach students. She fears they could make the school less welcoming for students and worsen teacher morale.
“Our biggest issue right now is the teacher shortage,” Schippers said. “Teachers are being run off because they’re being accused of doing things that they’re not doing.”
The Iowa Department of Education shows hundreds of vacancies across subject areas and grade levels. For years now, Iowa educators have tied the shortage to the politicization of education and lack of funding and compensation.
Conservatives in Iowa have called teachers “sinister” and accused them of grooming students with books about LGBTQ people or indoctrinating them with education about racism and sexism and how those forces have appeared in American history and society.
None of those accusations are true, but they’re having negative impacts across Iowa.
In Johnston, a recent staff survey showed only 36% of teachers are optimistic about the district’s future. That number was in the 60s from 2016 to 2019.
Similarly, only 29% of teachers said the district was moving in a direction that reflected its strategic plan for students. That’s despite 74% of teachers enjoying their work in the district, and 95% who say they’re engaged with their work.
The survey found most teachers don’t believe district leadership makes good decisions, communicates effectively, or promotes a good culture. However, teachers are generally happy with leadership in their individual schools and with their colleagues.
Alicia Hyde, a parent of three Johnston graduates and a Johnston teacher for 20 years, said the school board should be focused on the concerns of teachers, students, and parents and trying to balance those interests.
“It’s a public school, and we should have views for all of our students, not our personal political views and our personal religious views. They do not have a place on our school board, and I’m concerned about four of our candidates who are running,” she said.
Those four candidates are Lori Stiles, Josh Nelson, Michele Veach and Charles Steele. All four are connected to Moms For Liberty.
Schippers said since 2021, when Tidball, Evans and Davis were elected, there’s been more conflict between parents and the board.
The turmoil started with an attempt to ban a book written by a Native author—“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”—and continued with the approval of a student club connected to national white supremacists and the struggle over whether the district should do a diversity audit to examine how students are performing, how they feel about school, and what improvements the district could make.
For Sarah Miller, another Johnston parent, the board’s actions are the opposite of what she wants.
“What I really want is someone who is interested in representing our wide diversity of students,” she said. “Johnston has grown, and it’s not the same community that it was when people my age were going through school. And it is so important that we find board members that understand that and are tailoring their ideas, their policy decisions, to meet the needs of a wide variety of students.”
If seven members of Moms For Liberty are on the board, Schippers said the district won’t be a destination school anymore.
“People will leave the district if they take over,” she said. “I think people will leave the district and the school will start to fail. And once the school district starts to fail, it’s going to be a lot harder to bring it back.”
Schippers said she just wants the board to go back to normal, thinking about the whole district and working to make it welcoming for all students—white, Black, LGBTQ and all others—and their parents and teachers.
For the years her children have been in school, Schippers has loved the Johnston school district, even if there are bumpy times, and she doesn’t want to see it fall to extremists who want to push an agenda, and she knows she isn’t alone.
“Johnston parents, I think, are smarter than that,” Schippers said. “We know that our schools are thriving, and we know that we’re a destination district with an excellent reputation and a district that provides wonderful opportunities for its students. And we’re going to continue to fight for as long as it takes.”
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