Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - Dorau, Johnson, Swisher will bring change to board

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 5, 2009.

Communication. Vision. Leadership.

Those are the qualities we're looking for in candidates for the Iowa City School Board. They also are the qualities that have been lacking in the current board's response to the many issues that have caused attendance at school board meetings to swell.

With the public's goodwill and trust exhausted after the six-month battle over Roosevelt Elementary, and with the announcement that the district needs to cut $6 million over the next two years, we think it's a time for change on the Iowa City School Board.

That's why we're backing the candidates in Tuesday's election we think can effect the most change in the right direction: Tuyet Dorau, Anne Johnson and Sarah Swisher.

Not only does Dorau have an inspiring personal story -- she was on the free and reduced lunch rolls when her mother, a refugee from Vietnam, worked three jobs while going to school full time -- but the West High graduate also now oversees grants and other projects as coordinator for multi-site clinical trials for the University of Iowa Department of Ophthalmology. We want her to bring a similar attentiveness to school board budgets and finance reports as she pushes the board to be more fiscally responsible and more transparent about its decision making. And we want her to do so with the same directness she's displayed during her campaign.

Like Dorau, Johnson is a product of the Iowa City school system -- having attended Wood Elementary, South East Junior High and City High. She now lives in North Liberty and has been instrumental in forming the group, Advocates for North Corridor High School.

There are some who worry that Johnson is a single-issue or regional candidate, and we do think she would be an effective advocate for this fast growing area of the district. But Johnson's performance in interviews and forums shows that her job at Pearson -- as well as her experiences with the district on both sides of the river -- gives her a broad perspective on the array of issues facing the district.

Swisher already is a known agent of change in local politics. Not only is she political director of SEIU Local 199 -- which represents three bargaining units in the district -- she also successfully co-chaired the "Yes for Kids" bond campaign in 2002. Because Swisher personally helped persuade her fellow citizens to trust the district with their money, she has a personal stake in ensuring that the district is trustworthy in how it spends money from the 2002 bond and the 2007 SILO.

There are some who worry that Swisher would politicize her position on the non-partisan board. But Swisher has pledged to recuse herself from voting on contracts or grievances negotiated through her employer, and the state ethics board and the district's attorney are clear that Swisher can participate in all discussions that don't directly involve her employer.

We also appreciate the blend of common sense and "out of the box" thinking Swisher has brought to the discussion so far. As Charlie Funk, her co-chairman for the "Yes for Schools" campaign, writes in his endorsement letter, "I found her to be energetic and very skilled at rallying persons toward a common goal. Our campaign faced a few bumps in the road in the early weeks, and she displayed a healthy amount of pragmatism as we worked through these problems."

Calling for a "year for change," of course, means that we are not endorsing incumbent candidate Mike Cooper. Elected to a three-year term in 2007, Cooper had one year shaved off when Iowa made school board elections bi-annual instead of annual. It's true that Cooper might have come into his own in his third year of service. He often has disagreed with the board majority -- at least in discussion, if not during the actual vote. And during his candidate interview, he owned up to the criticism that he spent too long trying to learn and to understand the system and didn't start soon enough asking critical questions to challenge "the way things have always been done."

So we can understand why Cooper's supporters think he now will be the change candidate they hoped he would be two years ago -- and if voters elect him Tuesday, we hope Cooper will live up to such high expectations. But we don't find the possibility a safe enough bet to endorse Cooper for a four-year term.

Instead, we recommend our readers vote for Dorau, Johnson and Swisher. And then we urge everyone -- regardless of their vote -- to continue coming out to meetings and participating in discussion of our district's future. That's the only way we can ensure the board members improve their communication, vision and leadership.

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