Interview: Iowa City school board candidate J.P. Claussen on the issues

Little Village conducted interviews with the candidates for the Iowa City School Board. All candidates were asked the same set of questions.

J.P. Claussen — photo by Jav Ducker

J.P. Claussen wants to make sure the teacher’s perspective is represented when policy is being created in the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD). Claussen taught special education at West High School for 10 years, and is now an educator working in the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics inpatient Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit. He was also president of the local teachers union, the Iowa City Education Association (ICEA), from 2006 to 2008.

Claussen is running for one of the three board seats with a four year term. It’s his second run for the school board. He was an unsuccessful candidate in last year’s special election.

What is it in your personal background that has motivated you to run for school board?

“Service is really important to me. Serving the community was just part of how I grew up.”

Claussen grew up in Ricketts, a western Iowa town of less than 150 people, where he says neighbors helping each other was just standard behavior. Claussen brought that attitude to the University of Iowa as a student.

“Coming here opened my eyes. I became aware of things I hadn’t been aware of growing up in a very small town. I started to become politically active. And when I became a teacher in 2004, I immediately became aware of the political aspects of education.”

“But the whole political landscape has changed, since the election last year and the legislative session this year. Now school boards are the only mechanism in Iowa to protect teacher benefits and pay. That’s added an extra sense of urgency that didn’t exist last summer.”

What policy issues are motivating your run?

“Equity is a big one. I taught kids with emotional and behavioral disorders for 10 years at West. Disproportionately those kids are African-American. Then when the climate survey came out last year and this year, it showed numerically what I had experienced.”

The climate survey is a report prepared by the University of Iowa Public Policy Center in conjunction with ICCSD, which presents the perceptions students have of their school experience.

“What the surveys showed was that a lot of kids, very much disproportionately according to race, don’t feel supported, don’t feel like they can connect with a mentor, don’t feel understood. This year, adding an LGBT part, that trans kids or binary kids don’t feel understood or supported or safe.”

“Kids can’t learn as effectively, if they don’t feel safe and supported in school.”

The district’s approach to special education is also a major concern for Claussen.

“In June of 2016, the state issued the accreditation report. That report was a very intensive investigation by the state into our special education practices, and it is full of really troubling things. Like a retaliatory culture against teachers and families, and that the central administration hinders teacher and principals efforts to help kids. For a lot of us who have been in special education for a long time, that report connected a lot of dots.”

“We have a new special education director, so there’s a great opportunity for a fresh slate. But we need to learn from the accreditation report.”

What personal skills do you believe will help you be an effective board member?

“One of the most important things I’m able to do is build positive, productive relationships very quickly. I work in child psychology, and a big piece of that is building a relationship with a kid who’s under duress and have them trust me, so we can work together.”

“I also believe the skills I developed as a teacher are really going to help the board function well.”

Do you support or oppose the bond issue? Why?

“I’m very much in favor of the bond. I taught in the district, so I know what the facilities are like. Thirty years ago, we had about 7,000 kids in the district. Now we have about 14,000 kids and our facilities have not doubled, not even close. We’re growing by about 300 kids a year.”

“I’ve been very impressed by the new construction I’ve seen. Education is at the center of the design, and they’re doing it in really smart ways.”

What is your opinion on the use of seclusion rooms?

“I don’t believe they are necessary. However, there are some instances where seclusion is a matter of safety. When seclusion is in an IEP [Individual Education Program] and you’re following the functional behavior plan, it can be appropriate. But we need better facilities than what are in most schools.”

An IEP is a written plan for public school students with special needs, that teachers and school staff are supposed to follow.

“The best answer to this to this was in a report that the district got, the Hanover report.”

ICCSD commissioned Hanover Research to examine the district’s use of seclusion rooms. The report, which was issued in March, called for a reduction in the use of the rooms, and to stop using them to give “time outs” to troublesome students.

“We have a good blueprint. We need to make sure it’s implemented and we need to make sure we’re always training teachers and staff on the proper use of the rooms,” Claussen said. “It’s going to take some time to work through this. Because misuse of the rooms has been a systemic thing.”

How would you make sure the district complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

“It’s a very important issue. Near to my heart.”

“First off, some of the big stuff, like bringing Horace Mann in compliance, you need the bond to do it. If we don’t get the bond, that money will have to come from some other place, which means some other programs are going to suffer.”

Parts of Horace Mann Elementary School’s 100-year-old building are not accessible by wheelchair. Planned renovations for the school include adding an elevator to make the building’s second floor accessible to those with limited mobility.

“Some of this is money, but some of it is will and understanding. I’m hopeful we can have a board majority insist we go above and beyond. Because we have to be compliant, but we ought to make sure every kid has a really equitable experience.”

What do you plan to do to address the achievement gap?

“The truth is, that achievement gap has been there as long as we’ve been measuring it. It’s barely moved, and we have tried lots of different things.”

In ICCSD schools, black and Latino students, as well as all students qualifying for free or reduced lunches and those in the process of learning English, have significantly lower scores in standardized tests measuring proficiency in math and reading than the overall student body.

“We do have to have effective curricula that works, but I’ve seen instances where a curriculum was purchased just on the sales materials alone, without any real teacher input.”

“But having good curriculum is important, but it’s not everything. If I’m a kid and I’m not feeling welcome at my school, and I have my own outside-of-school hurdles to overcome, I’m not going to be ready to read. We can’t solve all those problems as a district, but we have to address them, otherwise we’re not going to close those gaps.”

Do you believe the rollback of collective bargaining rights for teachers will have an impact on the district? If so, what would you do to address it?

“This is a critical issue. Our district extended the existing contract for two years. What I will do is push to make that board policy, so that any changes to that agreement will have to be approved by a board majority. That will give the teachers protection, although they will have to be more active in elections going forth, if they want to support this kind of thing.”

“Because I’ve been on the other side of the table, negotiating for the union, I’ll know what questions to ask. What I hope to do is get to a place where the teachers and district are working together to get innovative in certain areas. Class size, for example. So it’s not a simple math problem of: if we pay you less, we can hire more teachers. That’s the typical line for a school administration.”

“There are ways we can restructure things, and think creatively about solutions. We’ll need to trust each other to do it.”

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for readability.

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