Six candidates presented their views on a series of district challenges and education’s future during a ninety minute forum at Lowe Park Wednesday night.
Over one hundred school district residents watched incumbents Cara Lausen and Rachel Wall joined by Kara Larson, Melissa Walker, Matt Rollinger and Geralyn Jones answer questions posed by moderator Bob Hoyt in the Marion Economic Development candidate event.
Diversity in staffing and student educational opportunity equity figure prominently in school operations. Nearly eighty-one percent of the 2019-2020 Linn-Mar student body is white with about eight percent black, eight percent Asian and three percent hispanic.
Asked about improving diversity and equity at Linn-Mar, Kara Larson pointed to students and parents describing their experiences as a first step. Cara Lausen noted the District is, “only starting work,” on this issue, having just appointed an equity director in early October, but also identified, “listening to our students especially,” as critical to success. Melissa Walker, who works with the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity, added learning requires students feeling safe.
Rollinger disagreed. “Equity in education is fake,” he said and that schools need to focus on, “reading, writing and math,” because when a student, “has these three basics mastered, there is nothing they can’t teach themselves.” Saying, “public education has failed,” he prescribes instead focusing on areas of agreement between diverse groups leaving no, “time for other agendas to ask these kinds of questions.”
On the question of managing the growing student population, a challenge Linn-Mar faced over the last ten years and continues to be a challenge, both Walker and Larson will lobby the Legislature to improve aid. Walker endorses a balanced approach to cuts and additions so long as the cuts have no impact to education, Rachel Wall commented the Board will need to stick to the budget, “and make tough choices,” while Rollinger wants to, “get the most bang for our dollar.” However, neither Walker, Wall nor Rollinger, detailed how they would make those decisions.
Tied closely to growth was a question about Linn-Mar’s current grade structure put in effect last year after completing construction on the new fifth and sixth grade buildings. Kara Larson, a Linn-Mar graduate noted this was the approach used while she was in school and it was very effective. All the candidates supported the District’s return to this configuration with Larson, Lauson, Rollinger and Walker identifying the high school, remodeled less than ten years ago, as the next building to examine again. Both Jones and Wall also endorsed the structure but Jones admitted, “this is something that is new to me.”
Student and staff mental health also contributes to the educational environment. Hoyt asked each candidate’s thoughts on this issue. Larson, Wall and Walker urged access to mental health professionals in the schools, in particular noting staff members options for appointments are limited to after school hours. Cara Lausen described a “Safe to Speak Up” program available on high school student laptops.
Matt Rollinger said a plan needs to be in place but did not describe any specifics and Geralyn Jones said, “mental health is very important,” but only described reintroducing volunteers into the schools and access to “recovery counselors” as approaches.
Changes in labor demand, particularly plumbing, carpentry and electrical, generated a question on alternative career path objectives. All the candidates endorsed this option. Key to offering students experience in other areas are partnerships with organizations. Cara Lauson and Kara Larson both identified collaborations with MEDCO, City of Marion and Kirkwood Community College and Melissa Walker added non-profits to the list. Rachel Wall warned, however, the District should, “use caution,” only seeking out partnerships and opportunities where “interests overlap.”
Though a non-partisan position, politicking, both with other board members and the public in general, is an important skill. Five candidates described listening as critical. Though saying consensus building was, “at the very top of my list,” and describing himself as, “probably the most qualified person up here,” to deal with public complaints, Since June, Rollinger has regularly attended school board meetings raising his voice while criticizing board decisions. Though self-identifying as “most qualified, Matt Rollinger did not offer any specific approaches he would use and did not describe any past successes.
In their closing remarks, both Wall and Walker said they were motivated to help educate Linn-Mar children. Cara Lausen asked voters to consider, “the work I’ve done over the last four years,” while Matt Rollinger admitted he is, “not a polished politician,” but is, “up here” for the people he thinks do not have a voice. Kara Larson is running, “to support staff and students,” and does not bring, “an agenda” with her. Geralyn Jones highlighted, “I’m a christian,” and claimed no agenda. However, like Matt Rollinger, she is a vocal opponent of mask mandates frequently complaining about masks during school board meeting public comment periods.
The Linn-Mar school board race drew the largest number of candidates in the area. On November 2, voters will cast ballots for three of these six candidates.