By The Gazette Editorial Board
No matter how well an incumbent has performed in a public office, we always prefer to see at least one challenger step up when the next election comes around.
Healthy competition is better for representative government — it helps illuminate issues that otherwise may not get much attention. And challengers help ensure incumbents work to stay relevant and don’t become too enthralled with the status quo.
That’s why we are glad to see nine very engaged candidates, including two incumbents, running for the three at-large seats in the Iowa City school district. As well as a challenger taking on the incumbents in two Kirkwood Community College districts.
That’s also why we’re disappointed that only one of the three open seats on the Cedar Rapids school board is a contested race. And that three Kirkwood incumbents on the board of trustees are unchallenged.
It’s disappointing because K-12 schools represent the biggest share of the local property tax dollar, and Kirkwood’s importance to postsecondary options for students in this region is immense.
School elections are important. The Gazette Editorial Board interviewed candidates in contested races in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Kirkwood districts. Today, we offer endorsements for readers’ consideration as part of the mix of information we hope voters will seek out and review — and then cast a ballot on or before Tuesday.
CEDAR RAPIDS: Westercamp
In Cedar Rapids, incumbent Keith Westercamp is facing Lawrence Wenclawski in District 3.
To his credit, the challenger has attended board meetings frequently and often questioned board processes, its openness and engagement with the public. He takes some credit for recent improvements in communication.
We, too, share some of Wenclawski’s concerns and salute his willingness to serve beyond critiquing. His analytical background as a software developer is valuable. And he openly professes his desire to play the devil’s advocate.
However, we wonder whether he would be a coalition builder, one who can bring about constructive changes instead of fostering divides.
We see Westercamp as someone who has such ability.
An independent business man, he is well versed in the issues and his commitment to the district is exemplary — he and his wife, she retired after a long teaching career, have volunteered their time and services to the district and community for years.
Westercamp offers ideas. He thinks the district, which has seen declining enrollment for years, needs to better communicate that it’s doing just as good a job of educating students as any of the surrounding districts. Cedar Rapids also has a larger minority population and he thinks the district should be more open to exploring what has worked best around the nation at closing the achievement gaps.
Westercamp acknowledged that the public’s trust in the board and administration is “lower than I’d like to see.” and he’s concerned about the turnover rate in administrators in recent years. He respects Superintendent David Benson as someone who “excels at budgets and gets things done” but also would “like him to check with us (board) more often.”
Westercamp also brings a strong background in state legislative issues on education, having served on the Iowa Association of School Boards.
We think Westercamp deserves another term on the board. We also hope he’ll be a stronger voice who inspires even more effective public communication.
Iowa City: Tuyet, Lynch, Barron
We think most, if not all, the nine candidates in this large field have much to offer. And that’s good, because this district, one of the state’s largest and fastest-growing, is wrestling with many challenges and opportunities, ranging from critical facilities needs to redistricting to greater diversity in students and families. The board needs diverse backgrounds and skill sets, while also addressing issues of public trust and communication that have surfaced in recent years.
Tuyet Dorau, one of the two incumbents, is the only minority member on the board. That in itself is not a reason to re-elect her, but she has proved to be a thoughtful, tactful critic as well as an informed contributor during her first term. She’s earned another.
Newcomer Chris Lynch strikes us as someone who can help lead the board through divisive issues to a clear vision and communicate it to the public. His skills as a successful engineer and manager of operations and supply chain at Procter & Gamble lend to that ability — his background includes being a trainer in high-performing organizations. Meanwhile, he’s also been active in school and community groups. Like Dorau, he’s skilled at discerning data and what it means in regards to policy.
Our third choice was perhaps the most difficult. Karla Cook, a retired veteran teacher, has served ably in her first term. Her understanding of classroom needs is valuable. She is thoughtful and committed to providing strong education opportunities to all students.
We finally opted for Sara Barron. We see her as an excellent communicator, a bridge builder who can advocate for low-income students and minorities and challenge any stale, ineffective policies. Her work as community relations director for Big Brothers Big Sisters provides relevant experience. She’s also been engaged in the district as a member of the Facilities Master Planning Steering Committee.
Kirkwood: Harrington, Swanson
Kirkwood has become one of the nation’s most innovative yet practical community colleges, and Elaine Harrington has helped oversee much of that during her 10 years as a trustee. Her involvement with Kirkwood runs deep, including a degree that helped her launch a successful upholstery business while also helping her husband run the family farm. She wants Kirkwood to continue being a “pacesetter” while maintaining its more affordable cost for students.
Harrington of Watkins also has served at the local level on the Benton Community school board.
Her commitment and experience make her a solid choice for re-election over first-time challenger Joel Thys, a business man from Blairstown. He’s a Kirkwood graduate and supporter who didn’t convince us that a change is in order for District 6 director.
John Swanson, also an incumbent, brings a well-rounded, deep background as a former Kirkwood administrator, a small-business owner, corporate work experience and several years in the non-profit sector as well. He understands and promotes Kirkwood’s mission and that it must continue to make changes to keep it relevant for students in a fast-changing world.
District 9 challenger Kevin King offers many similar attributes. He had a stint as a trustee four years ago before losing a re-election bid. A 30-year veteran and executive of the banking industry, he serves on the Kirkwood Foundation and is a community volunteer as well. He rightly stresses Kirkwood’s role in preparing students for more of the middle skills-jobs so much in demand.
Swanson and King are strong choices. Unfortunately, only one can be elected. Swanson gets our nod based on his recent service helping Kirkwood build and prepare for the future.
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