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Davenport school board race: Karen Gordon, candidate

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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 I believe it is important for the board to have recent experience with and direct connections to those working in the buildings. The perspectives I can bring to the table are unique in that regard, and necessary to hold the administration accountable for what they say and do. My top priority is to open up the lines of communication between district administration and building staff, and between district administration and the community. Transparency is imperative if we are ever to move forward in a meaningful way with anything in the district. Another priority is student-focused financial decisions. This means prioritizing classroom staff, librarians, and counselors, and making sure those positions are filled - and not to the bare minimum, but to the numbers that will ensure student support and success - and building the rest of the budget after that. And finally, staff support. Give teachers adequate planning periods, and trust them to know best what their students and classrooms need to function successfully, and back off of fluffy, time-consuming requirements.

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

I am a lifelong resident of Davenport. I attended Davenport schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade, at Garfield, Eisenhower, Sudlow, and North. I am raising two children who have also been educated in the Davenport schools, at Wilson, Williams, Sudlow, and Central so far. I have worked as a bus driver for students in the district. I also am a recent former employee of DCSD, having worked 4 years as Campus Security at JB Young and Smart, and 2 years as Student Support Liaison, for both general and special ed, at Hayes. In my time working for the schools, I held positions that allowed me to be truly observant of almost all the working parts. I worked closely with administration, I spent time in many classrooms working alongside teachers, and I worked primarily one on one with students. I was able to see up close the ways the district administrative decisions impacted everyone in the buildings. One of the best skills I gained in my years employed by the district was the ability to remain calm and use active listening and de-escalation tactics when things get heated. It

served me well with children in crisis, and it has proven to be useful in day-to-day life as well. I trust it would be a valuable tool as a board member. Three years ago when the district was intent on closing schools, a handful of friends and I attended every single board meeting for 8 months straight, spoke at every open forum and every Q and A session, wrote emails and letters and fought for our students to retain schools in their neighborhoods. It was a challenging and emotional fight, but we won. That’s the energy I bring to the table. I want to see this district become the thing it keeps saying it is: a place for equal opportunity for all students, a safe and enjoyable work environment for our staff, and a truly supportive administration.

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

Accreditation. We have been under conditional accreditation for 2.5 years already, and the staff and community are left in the dark about the progress and the plan. The superintendent says we “are absolutely moving in the right direction” and the CFO says he “believes we have made great progress” - but what does any of that mean? State oversight ends next month. Will we have made enough of the right kind of progress to regain full accreditation? If not, then what? That leads me to the next issue - transparency, or lack thereof, from the district administration. Building staff has faced so many changes the last several years, at breakneck pace, and when asked, building admin shrug and say “It’s coming down from the top, that’s all I know.” So who is making these decisions? Who is holding them accountable for them being the right thing to do, the best practices? The community seems to feel similarly - people are still upset about the sale of Lincoln school and the hiring of 8 new directors, among other things. People want to feel good about having their children in the district, and about working for the district, and that is hard to do when there is such a wide disconnect and such a lack of transparent communication between those making decisions and those at the receiving end of them. Those are more broad, top-level issues. At the building level, one major issue our district is facing is student behaviors and the collective response to them. The programs the district admin promotes (Boystown, Davenport Way, and CRVP, all just in the last 6 years) all look good on paper and sound good in theory and even are good in certain circumstances, yet aren’t always practical in the moment. With more violent behaviors on the rise in both frequency and intensity, it’s important to have a safe and effective way to manage those with haste. For this to happen, we need to listen to the staff at the building level and utilize their input, because they are seeing and handling these issues day in and out and can speak to the efficacy of the programs used during times of crisis response. I have major concerns about the use of SROs as behavior management tools, and would like to rethink the way we utilize the police in our buildings. Another issue is placement for kids in special ed. I understand that students with special needs need to be provided a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) but I’m not sure I agree with the way Davenport interprets that. There are sped classrooms with students from such a wide range of grade levels, as well as academic and behavioral needs, that the teachers cannot possibly differentiate instruction appropriately and the consequence of that is no one getting the education they deserve. This creates a volatile and chaotic learning environment for everyone in the room, and in my interpretation, doesn’t follow one of the steps the delivery system of the continuum of services and placements requirement required by Iowa law (https://educateiowa.gov/documents/administrative-rules-special-education/2019/12/0 5-least-restrictive-environment page 2):

4. The provision of specially designed instruction to eligible individuals with similar special education instructional needs organized according to the type of curriculum and instruction to be provided, and the severity of the educational needs of the eligible individuals served.

I would like the district to collaborate with special ed teachers and parents and build a system around what is best for the students within the structure of the law. It feels, at the building level, that so many decisions are made based on budget and staffing instead of the education of children, and it’s imperative that we turn that trend around. Another concern is systemic racism. Part of the reason the state got involved in district operations was to ensure we stopped disproportionately disciplining students of color. Supposedly we are on the right track. I’ll just say that data can be manipulated, and we still have a lot of work to do.

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

What I would change about the current budget is that instead of first looking for places to cut costs, I would first and foremost look to fully fund the hiring and retention of every single teacher, para, counselor, nurse, and librarian our schools need in order to ensure best educational outcomes for all students. And once that was done, then work

from that to responsibly allocate the rest. But I firmly believe that if we aren’t meeting the needs of our students by providing them with fully staffed buildings and fully supported teachers, then it won’t matter much what we are doing with the money, because we will have already proven that our number one priority is not student education and safety. Budget cuts need to start at the top. The approval of eight new directors at $165K apiece was negligent, especially considering the timing - right at the end of two years of a “budget freeze” when staff members who left or retired weren’t being replaced. We have entirely too many district-level administrators and directors.

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

One of my strengths is seeing the big picture (aka playing the Devil’s advocate, aka giving people the benefit of the doubt). I can stay calm and have rational conversations even when I disagree. I also have almost 16 years of experience as a parent/head of household. I am really experienced at hearing why we NEED something, and standing firm in my “No. No we do not.” I trust that experience will transition well to budget discussions.

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 disagree with Gov. Reynolds’s ban on mask mandates. Schools are expected to provide education and a safe environment for staff and students, and those with the highest levels of postdoctoral education throughout the world have said time and again that the science shows that masks and physical distancing reduce transmission of Covid-19. Public schools perform public service to the community and therefore should always follow public health and safety measures as put forth by the CDC and the WHO.

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

I really think for the most part that the district did the best they could with the cards they were dealt. Overall, the health of students and staff, along with case numbers in Scott County, and the advice of the local health department has always led the decisions for how best to navigate schooling during a pandemic, and I think the district did well following those recommendations as well as possible, despite the ever-changing legal decisions being handed down from the governor.

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?

I don’t have safety concerns. Ultimately, we all want what is best for our kids. We just have different ideas of what that looks like. I can certainly understand the anger, frustration, and fear of parents who feel like they don’t have control over the decisions that affect their kids, regardless of whether I agree with their stance on masks.

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?

I disagree with the restrictions. I think that it’s important for schools to teach factual history. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I think it’s necessary to teach uncomfortable truths because history is built upon them. We can only grow as a society, a community, and as individuals when we face the mistakes we’ve made in the past and put in work to do better. I believe it is the place of educators to teach facts. It is important for students to engage with materials and in discussions that challenge their way of thinking and/or their way of being raised so they can become critical thinkers and learn how to engage in intellectual debate/conversation throughout their lives. I don’t agree with government entities deciding there are subjects and ideas that cannot be taught. Education is essential for the success of a society, and the more areas in which we are educated, the better.

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?

The current push for early literacy is a great step in the right direction. I’d like to see grant-funded transportation for any student who needs it. That would combat the attendance issues that play into academic struggles. Structured after-school programs with tutoring available would help working families and give students a time and place for extra help with their schoolwork. And overall, a mindset shift. We have to stop labeling kids and start teaching to the whole person - accepting who they are and where they’re at as individuals, and doing whatever is necessary for them to learn.

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?

I think it was signed into law much too quickly, without considering the logistics or the consequences of implementation.

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