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Learn along with us as we examine the state of education in Iowa and the various issues it faces today.

Who's calling the shots?

Illustration by Josie Fischels

School board meetings have long had a reputation as unexciting, but over the past few years have become center stage for heated discussions from mask mandates to vaccinations and transgender student policy.

School board meetings have long had a reputation as unexciting, but over the past few years have become hot spots for nationwide discussions on mask mandates to vaccines and transgender student policy.

School boards were thrust into the community spotlight during the pandemic, for better or for worse

With the pandemic, school boards were suddenly tasked with answering questions never asked before, like whether to enforce a mask mandate, have in-person or online learning, or leave all decision making to the state.

In places like Ankeny or Johnston, school board meetings became heated environments as topics expanded to include mask mandates, book bans and social justice issues. Increasingly, polarizing political issues crept not only into meetings, but nonpartisan school board elections.

In Ankeny, candidates opposed to a mask mandate topped the school board election race, in response to a controversy when the board at the time approved a mask mandate for all grades. They'd made it after a federal court ruling that blocked Iowa’s ban on school mandates.

One good thing: meetings became more accessible for members of the community to attend and comment on as many of them were livestreamed, making it easier to cue up on Zoom or Microsoft Teams and add their voice to the conversation. While people were less interested in what the school board did prior to the pandemic, Rob Barron, who served as an at-large Des Moines Public School Board Member from 2013-2021, said he remembers 1,000 people watching meetings during the pandemic, and dozens of others would be lined up in person.

The pandemic also added additional pressure and stress

Megan Goldberg, an assistant professor of American politics at Cornell College, has researched school boards since the fall of 2020 to understand the stress the pandemic put on institutions and how they have coped with it. Her research focuses on the "nationalization" of politics at the state level, and she has seen those issues arise in local school board meetings.

As part of the research, survey data showed that prior to the pandemic, school board members typically spent about seven to 14 hours a month on the school board, but many have since reported substantially higher workloads and stress during the pandemic. One parent said she was spending 40 hours a week at home simply answering hundreds of emails from concerned parents. In Iowa, these positions are also unpaid.

"In districts that are either more competitive or split along party lines, they were the ones dealing with very intense school board meetings," Goldberg said.

Barron, who was elected as the first Latino on the Des Moines Public School Board, said board discussions in the fall of 2020 boiled down to how the school planned to bring students back in person, or whether to keep with online learning. Balancing voices in the community was a challenge, he said, and there never seemed to be an ideal option.

"The best decisions were the least bad decisions that we had, there were no good decisions on the table for us during COVID," Barron said.

Laws implemented by the Iowa State Government also made it more difficult to enact changes. The laws superseded the authority of school boards, taking away some of the power that they have traditionally had, such as in May 2021, when Gov. Kim Reynolds barred schools from issuing mask mandates.

"To school boards, local control is very important. A lot of school board members take seriously that this is an elected position and that they care about district preferences," Goldberg said. "When we asked, 'What were things that the state did that were helpful or not helpful?'...taking away local control was not helpful for them because they wanted to be able to adapt to what their own district needed and wanted."

A court case that challenged the law was blocked by a court injunction. The result was a period of heated debates in school board meetings when schools had to decide how to move ahead while keeping students safe.

"How active do you want your state government to be and how much reliance do you want to have on your neighbors that are in school and city elected positions?" Barron asked. "They are so responsive to you in a way that a governor cannot be... it's a good system for the state and you don't necessarily want to have pretty active, powerful state government running over some of those local decisionmakers."

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.