In a field of similar candidates, uniqueness is vital
Schools in Des Moines could see huge changes after the school board election, particularly in the way administration caters to the constantly changing cultural landscape of Iowa’s capital.
In an era of waning political participation, it could be easy to dismiss the Des Moines School Board election as just another inconsequential ballot. However, each candidate, while similarly motivated and well-intentioned, has their own set of platform quirks that affect the children growing up in Des Moines public schools.
With these three at-large candidates, each one has been outspoken about problems facing the schools in Des Moines, like the difference in diversity between student bodies and teachers. While 27% of children in the Des Moines system are from minority families, only about 6% of teachers can claim the same status, per the League of United Latin American Citizens’ (LULAC) Joe Enriquez Henry.
Rob Barron, the incumbent, has not simply sat stagnant on his laurels during this campaign. He’s adopted common issues, like the aforementioned diversity discrepancy and constant budget cuts to education. Unlike the other two candidates, Barron has pre-existing political experience and does actively represent a minority group in Des Moines as the first Latino chair to join the Des Moines School Board. During his tenure, the school board passed two resolutions to counter the disintegration of DACA and protect so-called “DREAMers” from deportation. As Barron says on his website, his prior knowledge and willingness to deal with “the boring stuff” as he put it — i.e. the minutiae of council work —is an asset the other two candidates do not possess.
Schools have seen marked improvement since Barron took office in 2015. The four-year graduation rate rose two percentage points — an all-time high for the system — and AP scores have continued to rise, pointing to some progress under Barron’s programs. He also voiced a desire to approach Des Moines schools in a manner different from other Iowa districts in a Ballotpedia survey.
“Des Moines is different in many ways from every other school district in the State of Iowa. We are twice as large as the second largest district,” said Barron. “Though we educate 6% of all Iowa students in DMPS, we educate 16% of all Latino students and 21% of all African-American students. Demographically we are more alike large, urban school districts in other states.”
However, the other two candidates bring their own set of qualifications to the table. Louisa Dykstra, for instance, has her master’s degree for secondary math education — and received it right here in Des Moines. Her backgrounds in education and business are things she views as assets.
“The advantage I have is being able to speak both the language of education and the language of business.,” said Dykstra. “DMPS doesn’t need more board members with different ideas about what the schools should be doing. We need to let our education professionals do their jobs and be a powerful voice for them in the community.”
Dykstra also believes that school board members can be doing more to get involved outside of classroom policy and budget management.
“The biggest difference is that the other candidates (and some current board members) are only focusing on half the job, the part where the board sets policy for the schools,” Dykstra said.
She argues that the other half of the job — namely, community engagement — is just as significant, and she has ideas of how to implement it.
“The other half of the job is to be advocates for the schools in the community, and we need way more of that from our board,” she said.
“In years past, school board members met with state legislators in the area every two weeks during the legislative session and were very connected. That doesn’t happen anymore. The whole board really needs to dig in and understand how everything happening at the legislature affects Des Moines schools and be proactive in building relationships so communication happens quickly and easily during the session.”
Dykstra’s business involvement has also inspired the return of an old program that sought to involve students in existing businesses. The program focused on the businesses adopting a school and giving the children an opportunity to visit and learn about the business, as well as have employees from the business volunteer at the school. The idea is that such ventures would foster a community connection between business and school.
Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley
The third candidate is Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley, a teacher librarian with a firm desire to increase literacy and healthy learning environments for students. Her on-the-ground approach to school programs and desire to recruit teachers familiar with Iowa are two points that set her apart from Barron, whose approach is notably more macro and has expressed his plan to recruit non-Iowa teachers to add to the diversity of an already-shallow pool of teachers. In a forum meeting in early August, Shelley said that the increasing diversity of Iowa allows Des Moines schools to continue in-state recruitment.
“I think that across the state we have other communities that are becoming more diverse, places like Clinton, places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa City,” said Shelley. “And I think going to those places and finding people who are natives of Iowa, who already know our winters, and asking them, recruiting them to come Des Moines.”
In addition, Shelley is committed to the idea of properly hiring and paying quality teachers — understandable given her background as someone working in that system.
“Schools run because of the quality people that work with our students every day. Our schools are only as great as the staff that works within them,” she said in a July survey. “When we give our staff the dignity they need to take care of their families and the professional trust and license to do what’s best for the kids in their classrooms, we show that we value them.”
While each candidate is uniquely qualified for a school board position, there’s no doubt that the way they approach or prioritize certain issues will strongly shape the future of Des Moines’ children. Elections take place on September 12th.