Iowa Bystander School Board Election Interviews
Iowa Bystander, founded in 1894, has a long and celebrated legacy of impact in the area of education.
A significant part of that legacy is our bi-annual coverage of school board elections. We feel our approach truly allows candidates the opportunity to fully express themselves and allows our readers the opportunity to get up close and personal with their candidates.
We begin our process by inviting all candidates in contested elections in our seven reader zones to answer a 24 question pre-interview questionnaire.
Iowa Bystander reader zones (based on school districts) are: Ankeny, Des Moines, Johnston, Southeast Polk, Urbandale, Waukee and West Des Moines.
The Urbandale school board election was uncontested. Ankeny had three openings, all at-large; Des Moines had four openings, one at-large, four year seats for District 1 and District 3, and a two year seat for District 2; Johnston had four openings, all at-large; Southeast Polk had four openings, all at-large; Waukee had three openings, all at-large; and West Des Moines had four openings, all at-large.
Although the Southeast Polk School Board race is contested this year we did not schedule candidate interviews for the District due to time constraints.
Once the pre-interview questionnaires were completed we invited each candidate to participate in an interview with our three person endorsement panel.
The interviews were held at the Mercy Campus Holiday Inn on September 2nd and September 3rd.
Each interview was scheduled for 25 minutes including a 90 second opening statement, a four minute Q & A with each panelist, ten minutes of open discussion and a 90 second closing statement.
The Chair of our Endorsement panel is former Des Moines School Board President Dick Murphy. Dick is a retired educator and has served on numerous local and regional boards and commissions.
Our second panelist is former Chair of the Polk County Republican Party Kevin McLaughlin. Kevin is Vice President of BDF Investments and resides in Des Moines.
Our third panelist and sole endorser for one of our two Latino publications, El Comunicador, is Al Perez. Al is a resident of Ankeny, our second largest readership base, and previously worked for the Waukee School District. Al is the founder and director of the Transformations Group – a community development group that partners faith based and nonprofit entities with community and civic organizations. He is an ordained minister and chaplain with the DM Police Dept. He is also a member of the Latino Forum and sits on several county boards and commissions.
Dick Murphy has proven to be an effective and responsible leader of our panel. He takes this duty very seriously and, over the years has truly come to understand and respect the power we wield as endorsers.
That’s why this year this process has been turned over to him. With a couple of exceptions due to scheduling conflicts of a panelist, I did not participate. I absolutely trust Dick to take this process and make it his and he has not disappointed. He has also proven he will take our other panelist to the side and put them in check if they stray from the mission.
This has truly become his panel.
There are races we won’t impact at all. There are also races that we have clearly turned. In 2013 The Des Moines At-Large outcome was changed by our endorsement. The outcome of the Ankeny City Council race in 2013 was also changed by our endorsements.
Des Moines’ political scene is dominated by Democrats. I am a Democrat. I am the former co-chair of the Polk County Democratic Party. I, in fact explained this to a friend and strong Democratic activist, when he asked me why Kevin McLaughlin is on our panel as the former Chair of the Polk County Republican party.
I told him there are two reasons – the majority of registered voters in the suburbs where our paper has experienced explosive readership growth are Republicans so they need to be able to trust this process. Despite the differences Dick and I have had in the past politically we are both Democrats. We needed a credible Republican presence on our panel. But we also needed a Republican who would set aside his partisan agenda and select the best “employee/Director.”
Kevin has proven he has the integrity to set aside his agenda and make the tough call. He has not hesitated to select a better qualified Democrat over a Republican during his tenure on the panel.
The second reason is that Kevin is a hawk on fiscal issues and a fierce watchdog of the taxpayers money. In 2013 one of the Ankeny candidates was the head of their School Board foundation yet he had no idea of the assets of the foundation nor could he answer other questions related to it. The rest of the panel was very impressed by the gentleman and were ready to endorse him until Kevin made the compelling argument that we ought not be endorsing a candidate who holds an important decision like president of a foundation yet has no idea what’s going on. Kevin won the day and the very close election was tilted to the candidates we ultimately endorsed.
If you listen to the interviews you will hear Kevin consistently ask questions related to property taxes. He added four key questions to our questionnaire this year. Finally, Kevin devours the questionnaires. By the time we get to the endorsement process he can make immediate reference to a candidate’s written statements and why that matters.
He approaches the handling of taxpayer dollars with the same sense of awe he does when handling millions if not billions of dollars for his clients.
There are those who will be critical our third and final panelist is neither a woman nor an African American. We did reach out to a select group of women to serve on our panel which previously consisted of four members but in the end we felt by securing Al on our panel we gained a person who would absolutely represent a number of demographics not at the table when our endorsements were made.
Our trust in him was well placed.
Al has two jobs as a panelist – the first is to serve as one of three endorsing on behalf of the Bystander. The second is to be the sole decision maker in endorsing for El Comunicador.
Al strives to unite and find common ground. He is a leader in the regional Latino community and active in the Latino Forum. He has also worked closely with the African American community through the Black church. Those collaborations have put him on the front line of justice issues, poverty issues and given him insights into the hopes and frustrations of African Americans not just Latinos.
Al, who grew up under harsh conditions in Chicago, is as comfortable in the halls of power, however, as he is in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Al sits on a number of key boards and commissions and has gained the ears of key decision makers in the Greater Metropolitan community including his work as a Des Moines Police Department Chaplain.
Finally Al brings suburban insights. He worked within the Waukee School District. He moved to Ankeny because of the schools although his kids attend a private faith based academy.
With the huge growth we’ve had in our suburban readership we needed to have someone on the panel that could speak for those voters and taxpayers, not just an all Des Moines panel as we’ve had in years past.