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Davenport school board race: Allison Beck, incumbent

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Published: Oct. 26, 2021 at 5:05 PM CDT
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(KWQC) - Note: TV6 reached out to local school board candidates with a list of questions to help voters make an informed decision in the Nov. 2 city and school elections.

We will post the answers at www.kwqc.com/news/education/learn-united. TV6 does not endorse any candidates.

Why are you running for the school board? If elected, what will be your priorities?

I’m running for school board because every child deserves a high-quality education, regardless of zip code, socioeconomic factors, and special needs. Every child can achieve if given the opportunity with a safe, welcoming environment that nurtures their academic curiosity, social and emotional health, and values their unique contributions to the world. When I was elected to the Davenport school board four years ago, I was thrilled, but I quickly realized how complex a position it is. I only felt that I was comfortable after about two years when I had enough confidence to stand up to a board president who was an obstructionist and I began to really understand the nuances of school finance, special education, and student achievement. I believe that the training I have received and the experience I have gained makes me an ideal candidate to serve again. My first priority is getting our full accreditation back. We are on our way, but we are not there yet. Otherwise, I think we need to make sure that we spend our Covid money wisely and as close to our students as possible, to ensure that we are doing the best we can to make up for lost learning. We need to continue to work on disproportionality, by serving the whole child and community, and becoming a more welcoming, inclusive district. We also need to be more focused on the data—student achievement in early literacy and math in particular. Unless we see improvements across all demographics within a reasonable amount of time, we are not going to maintain enrollments or keep our families happy. Ultimately, I am running for school board again because Education is for Everyone.

What experiences or skills have prepared you to serve as a board member?

I have already served on the Davenport school board for four years. Being a school board member in what has been, to say the least, a tumultuous period of years. I have learned a lot and been a participant in extensive IASB (Iowa Association of School Boards) boardsmanship training. I will continue to provide a thoughtful, critical approach to policy-making and financial oversights. In addition, I am an educator (I teach college) and I have the perspective of being in the classroom, pivoting to online learning, and experiencing the hardships of the pandemic on teachers, staff, and students. Finally, I am a parent of kids in the Davenport Schools. When the schools succeed, my child succeeds, but more importantly, our whole community succeeds.

What do you see as the major issues facing your school district?

The main issue is that we need to regain our full accreditation. We are on the right track, and have made great strides toward a more cohesive, well-functioning district, but we have much work to do. Second, declining enrollment. We have a lot of great programs, activities, families, opportunities, and teachers in Davenport. But many people don’t know about them, or they have lost trust in our district due to egregious violations in Special Education and disproportionality in discipline (e.g., Keystone Academy).

We have a lot of work to do in order to make sure that all of our children are learning, particularly those who are children of color. In a recent board meeting we previewed some literacy data from the last couple of years. It was clear that all of our children have suffered academically in the pandemic, but it has been much worse for some demographics than others. Likewise, we need to improve the sense of safety and connection our students have with their schools in all demographics, but particularly among our minority students.

As a board member, where would you look to make budget cuts? What would you change about the current budget?

Ideally, I’d like the opportunity to NOT make budget cuts. The state currently has a huge budget surplus and the legislature could easily propose an increase in state supplemental aid that is more in line with the needs of public schools (5% rather than 2%, for example) and actually keeps up with inflation. That being said, in the current budget, we still need to “right size” but I plan to keep those cuts as far away from the classroom and students as possible. For the current budget, I would like to see more of an emphasis on hiring staff (even if only for a couple of years) that are in the classrooms to really target reading and math, especially for those students who have lost the most over the pandemic. This is my priority for spending from federal Covid relief dollars. Otherwise, we are moving in the correct direction with regard to our unspent authorized balance and we, as a board, are much more closely following and keeping an eye on how we spend our money each quarter.

What abilities and experiences do you bring to the table that would assist with making difficult financial and budgetary decisions, such as reducing staff?

In short, I’ve had to do it already, over the last few years. It is never comfortable to make tough financial decisions, but someone has to do it. One of the things I’ve learned is that these decisions are almost always more complicated than portrayed in the media, or even at our board meetings. As a board member, however, it is part of my job to make sure that the public understands the nuances of these decisions, particularly when they involve difficult decisions.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into state law a ban on mask mandates in schools (which courts have currently put on hold). Do you agree or disagree with the state ban, and why?

I am a scientist, trained in biology, but I am not an infectious disease expert. I trust the experts in public health and infectious diseases to make the decisions that are based on the most accurate, current scientifically-tested evidence. I trust the work of people such as the CDC and our local public health officials to know what is best for our children, based on current local conditions. In short, I do NOT feel that a statewide ban on requiring masks was a decision made with any scientific basis or concern for the health and safety of children. It was a purely political decision which should not have been. When it comes to public health, “personal choice” is not always an option. Each district is different, and local school boards, along with local public health officials should be the ones to make decisions about the safety and needs of our districts’ children. The school board is only seven people, but must make decisions for over 14,000 students, the vast majority of whom are happy to comply with evidence-based requirements made in their best interest.

How would you critique your school district’s overall handling of student and staff safety during the COVID pandemic?

As a whole, I am happy with how the District handled student and staff safety in the pandemic. We did not see huge numbers of students or their families sick during the worse parts of the pandemic. Our district health staff have stated that the vast majority of cases among students and staff he been cases of community transmission, brought from home, and not at the schools. This is evidence that our masks, sanitation, distancing, handwashing, and other practices have been working. I am happy that students are back in-person full-time, although I was not happy about how it was determined by the state, and not local communities. In addition, there are always a few people who take issue with how their particular student situation was handled when we roll out a new policy or procedure; while I wish we could avoid all issues, in my conversations with people in the District, the majority have been happy with our Covid response. I personally look forward to when our 5-12year-old students are able to be vaccinated, community transmission numbers come down, and we can begin to look to returning to a more “normal” environment.

Due to various controversial issues, such as mask-wearing, school board meetings have become more heated in recent months with protests and sometimes unruly behavior. Do you have any safety or other concerns, and what changes, if any, would you advocate?

Do I enjoy being called a child abuser, domestic terrorist, coward, and worse? Absolutely not. Do people have the right to speak their minds and share their concerns at open forums? Absolutely yes. One of the fundamental rights in our nation is that people can openly disagree with elected officials, out in public, to their faces. It is so important to be heard. That being said, expressing your thoughts does not give you license to yell during meetings, interrupt proceedings, make up history, spout false information, leave threatening voicemails, and intimidate people who are elected to make decisions. Fortunately, we have, for the most part, been spared the worst of this type of behavior, and I hope that it stays that way. I do have safety concerns, but I also recognize that most of the constituents in our district are able and willing to solve disagreements with polite discourse. In addition, we have law enforcement at every meeting, and I trust that they are keeping us safe at meetings and keeping their eyes and ears open to potential issues.

Iowa has a new law restricting what teachers can teach in schools, particularly when it comes to sexism and racism(issues sometimes lumped together in the catchall term “critical race theory”). This law bans concepts including the idea that one race or sex is superior to another. Do you agree or disagree with the new restrictions and why?

Public education is for everyone. It is non-partisan, and should be free of interference from politicians. I disagree with any attempt to avoid teaching the true history of our nation. Nowhere in any curriculum that I have ever seen does it say that one race or sex is superior to another. It is clear, however, that not all people in our nation’s history have been treated equally and with the respect due any human being. This fact makes many people uncomfortable, but the best way to avoid repeating history is to learn from it. That cannot be done if we do not engage with every part of it, including those parts that are unpleasant. Teachers and curriculum experts (who are usually former teachers) are the ones that should be making decisions about how to teach US history. Those are the people trained and licensed to deliver age-appropriate social studies and history curriculum to our children. Last time I checked, there were not a lot of teachers in the state legislature.

Schools throughout Iowa are experiencing achievement gaps, especially among students of color and those from low-income families. What course of action would you propose to help close the gap?

My first priority is to use our federal Covid relief money effectively, efficiently, and as directly on these students as possible. I would like to see us hire dedicated reading and math teachers, particularly for early learners and those who lost the most during the pandemic. Targeted small-group time with teachers allows those teachers to give more time to each student, allowing those students to make greater strides in learning. This will also help improve our engagement and connection with students and families, as well as help reduce disproportionality. Students who are reading at grade level by the end of 3rdgrade are more likely to graduate on time, less likely to drop out, have behavior issues, and fall behind in other subjects. Second, and this has been very hard to do in the past, we need to hire a more diverse teacher and staff body. Kids need to see people that look like them in positions of authority and success. Research shows that Black children who have had a Black teacher earlier in their academic lives are more successful going forward in school. Choosing curricula, topics, and texts that are centered on non-white people and people with disabilities is also very important. Our students are diverse and our teaching materials should reflect that. Children who see themselves reflected in their world are more secure, and feel more confident, and are more likely to take on academic challenges. We also need to do a much better job of reaching out to all of our families. We have made a number of improvements in this area, particularly as we begin a major long-range facilities plan program, and have worked to deal with the crisis of gun violence in Davenport that has affected many of our students and families. The people we hear from the most are not always representative of the people who need the most.

Under Iowa’s open enrollment law, Davenport and certain other districts are no longer allowed to deny open enrollment requests. What are your thoughts on this?

The loss of our voluntary diversity plans means that families with means who feel like sending their kids to another district and can provide transportation will do so. These families tend to be majority white and wealthier. Ultimately, when there are a number of districts in close proximity to one another, diversity plans help prevent pockets of high poverty, high-need schools. In addition, receiving districts can deny open enrollment requests because they lack sufficient special education staff or programming, again, leaving the home district with a greater concentration of higher need students. Schools should reflect the neighborhoods in which they sit, and the loss of these diversity plans makes it more difficult for a district like Davenport to reflect the city. Public education is not a free market and forcing districts to compete for “customers” ends up pulling money from districts when they cannot afford to lose any. I would not mind as much if the same state legislature that calls for “parent choice” would allow for greater growth in state public education funding. Now that would help districts serve all of their students and really give parents a choice they can love.

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