Controversy stalks school board members

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: December 22 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:09 am in
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By Bob Elliott

The Iowa City Community School District’s Board of Education is better known as just the school board. But the way things have gone in recent years, we might as well call it the “magnet board,” because it attracts controversy the way magnets attract metal.

As our rapidly changing world becomes increasingly complex, parents know education has become increasingly important for their children’s opportunity for any form of success in life. Thus continuing change becomes a catalyst for nearly constant public school controversies.

The seven-member school board must anticipate change and work to do what’s in the best interest of the entire school district. The problem is most parents are most often primarily concerned about their own children and their neighborhood schools.

Two of the most prominent controversies emerging at recent board meetings focus on efforts to increase safety and security at school buildings, and how to best observe the annual Martin Luther King national holiday.

l Holiday observance: In planning for the 2013-14 school year, board members and top school administrators discussed how best to observe the holiday honoring the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That discussion turned to focusing on something more meaningful than just a vacation day. For instance, keeping schools in session on Jan. 20 in order to organize a variety of student activities to make the holiday “a day of service to honor and learn about the civil rights icon.”

Seemed like a good idea. But they overlooked the important consideration that when groups of people are involved, how you do something is often at least as important as what you do.

If the board made a mistake, it was not initially involving local minority community leaders in the calendar discussions. My view is board members were trying to do the right thing, but didn’t go about it the most productive way.

l School safety: Because of increasing incidents of violent rampages at all levels of educational institutions (K-12 schools to colleges and universities), as well as sex offenders and child abductions, safety and security have to be among the highest priorities for our schools.

According to multiple unofficial sources about school violence, there were more than 80 killed and 100 wounded in 22 states from 2000 to 2009. In only four years since then, there were more than 70 killed and 65 wounded in 25 states. The worst were Virginia Tech University (33 dead and 25 wounded) and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut (26 dead and two wounded).

The local school board has correctly focused increased attention on safety and security for school buildings. Two options have been an ID card system for all school visitors and increasing fencing around specified schools. And that’s generated extensive public criticism.

According to The Gazette of Dec. 11, “With the ID system, known as Raptor, school visitors would have had to show a form of identification, which would be scanned and used to perform quick background checks …. Several forms of ID would be accepted.

“Some people have said the system could be a barrier to low-income people or immigrants who may lack identification. It also could discourage people from becoming active in their children’s schools.”

The school board is meeting its responsibilities by addressing the very real school safety concerns. More fencing and ID cards may or may not be the correct response, but safety concerns need to be addressed very seriously.

I believe serving on the school board is among the most important, most difficult and least appreciated of all elective positions in our community. If you have something to productive to say at a school board meeting, do it thoughtfully and respectfully. Board members deserve that.

l Bob Elliott is longtime Iowa City resident and former City Council member. Comments:

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