Editorial Roundup: Iowa

Fort Dodge Messenger. Oct. 2, 2021.

Editorial: Redistricting plan deserves support. Iowa’s approach should be widely emulated

Every 10 years, the United States government counts the number of people who reside in our nation. This census then becomes the basis for determining how many members of the U.S. House of Representatives each state has. States also use the census in deciding how the boundaries for districts in state legislatures will be drawn.

In most places, the battle over what the boundaries of federal and state legislative districts will be ends up being intensely partisan. The leaders of each party attempt to get district maps adopted that maximize the number of seats their party is likely to win. It’s not unusual for the process to produce oddly shaped districts that give an extra advantage to whichever party had the greater role in drawing the map. Critics of the way redistricting takes place in most states argue that it makes the competition between our political parties less fair than it should be.

Here in Iowa, a different approach has been in place since 1980. Nonpartisan staff members of the Legislative Services Agency are charged with producing district maps of similar size the design of which is not influenced by the political leanings of the voters who reside within them. Making sure the districts are as close to the same population as possible is a key part of this undertaking. Once the LSA develops its initial maps, hearings are held allowing the public to comment on the proposals. The Legislature is given the opportunity for an up or down vote on the recommendations. If the lawmakers reject the initial maps, the LSA produces a second set and the process repeats itself. If the second maps are rejected, a third attempt takes place. The Legislature can at this stage modify the maps or adopt its own.

The initial district maps proposed recently by the LSA are reasonable and should be adopted by the Legislature when it meets in a special session that convenes on Tuesday. While some lawmakers may be tempted to move the process to the stage where they can gain partisan advantage by modifying the maps, we urge them to avoid this temptation. The nonpartisan redistricting system that our state has used for four decades works well. It produces legislative districts that are widely regarded as sensible and fair.

The highly partisan redistricting games that occur in so many states increase the cynicism that so many Americans have about our politics. It would be a huge mistake for members of Iowa’s Legislature to introduce partisan considerations into Iowa’s redistricting process. Promptly adopting the initial plans proposed by the LSA will allow present and would-be officeholders to get on with the explaining to voters why their ideas warrant support. That, of course, is what elections should be about.

In the days ahead, newspapers and news broadcasts will be filled with stories about partisan wrangling in many states regarding district maps. If more states followed Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting approach much of this nonproductive turmoil could be avoided. Here in the Hawkeye State we must make certain that nothing happens in the upcoming special legislative session that would compromise our state’s commitment to an excellent redistricting system.

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Des Moines Register. Oct. 3, 2021.

Editorial: Iowa needs school boards focused on service, not a ‘personal agenda’

School board elections are important. But not so much because board members have been in the public eye more than usual the past three school years while trying to serve many masters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’re important because these volunteers are responsible for so much more year in and year out, all the puzzle pieces that are assembled to do no less than help the next generation of Iowa adults learn how to read, to solve problems, to work together, to lead.

Of course, much of the job deals with more pragmatic and still critically important concerns: ensuring children get to and from school safely, managing property and being good stewards of taxpayers’ money.

It’s heartening to see robust slates of nominated candidates for the Nov. 2 elections in the Des Moines area. North Polk stands out with 11 candidates running for three spots.

But it’s also difficult to ignore the context of raw conflict over COVID-19 policies and the epithets and unveiled threats in places like Ankeny toward the board members who set those policies. Or Gov. Kim Reynolds’ endorsement of a candidate for the Ankeny school board and her use of the occasion of a political fundraiser to tell supporters to “treat this November like it’s next November.”

Some candidates are emphasizing their stances on specific policies, especially toward mask mandates, rather than a vision for educational excellence in their communities. Their arguments are ideological, not aspirational.

Iowa has been served well by its tradition of distinguishing city and school elections from statewide, legislative and county contests by dispensing with party affiliations for most local forms of government.

Nobody would argue that a person’s political philosophy is irrelevant to setting school policy, and there’s nothing novel about Republicans and Democrats advocating for board candidates and celebrating or bemoaning vote results. But while Reynolds has the right to speak her mind, she would be wise to exercise more discretion in the example she sets and be mindful that less than two years ago, her party was proposing legislation to bar partisan expenditures advocating for school board candidates.

The experience of people who oversee districts illustrates that the nonpartisan distinction is worthwhile.

“I think that the the No. 1 thing a person has to have in mind is that, if elected, they are there to serve their community and their school, both,” Teresa Coenen of Woodbine told an editorial writer on Friday. “They’re not there to further a personal agenda. They’re not there to further the personal agenda of anybody else.”

Coenen has spent about four years on the school board in her western Iowa hometown and is also a board member of the Iowa Association of School Boards. She ran for office a few years after retiring from her career as a school administrator.

There’s no prerequisite for expertise to join a school board, and that’s as it should be. Iowans with little or no experience in education or government can serve capably — if, and it’s a big if, they put in the work.

“It’s not a piece-of-cake job,” Coenen said. “There’s a lot of research, there’s a lot of reading. There’s a lot of time spending on your own personal development to learn things. And I think as long as people have that in mind, and couple that with knowing that you’re there to serve, I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity for anybody to help their districts.”

The Iowa Association of School Boards and other organizations provide resources to bring directors up to speed on a “very challenging business model and operation model.” In Des Moines, school board members, administrators and others gave up an entire Saturday in August to present a workshop on district operations for prospective board members.

Coenen said her work in Woodbine has been satisfying. She was excited to share about a regional STEM learning center that Reynolds, Sen. Joni Ernst and other officials will help celebrate this month, and about a new self-paced learning approach in the district that lets “students get the help when they need help” and “fly when they can fly.”

We hope those are the kinds of outcomes that candidates and voters want to bring about where they live, too, starting with the nonpartisan elections Nov. 2

Effective boards, Coenen said, concentrate on setting effective policies: “That’s our only job, and then let the professionals do their job.”

So as you research candidates before casting your votes, beware of candidates who spend most of their time talking about masks, certain curricula or other ideological agendas, whichever side they align with.

Look for people who see the job as public service, shaping broad policies that will best prepare the next generation of Iowans to learn and lead.

Correction: The Sept. 26 editorial, “Do it, Iowa. Legalize pot.,” included outdated information about Iowa’s medical cannabidiol program. The limit on THC content in products was lifted in 2020.

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