Interview: Iowa City school board candidate Shawn Eyestone 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.

Shawn Eyestone — photo by Paul Brennan

Shawn Eyestone wants to bring the analytical and people skills he has learned managing a high-tech laboratory to the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD). Eyestone, the manager of the High Throughput Quality Control Department at Integrated DNA Technologies, is running for the opening on the school board created when LaTasha DeLoach resigned in July. If elected, Eyestone would serve for the remaining two years of DeLoach’s term.

Eyestone was an unsuccessful candidate for school board in 2015.

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

“Growing up, I’d always hear about my grandfather and his dedication to public service. My parents did not have the time to be able to follow that example, but I have a job that’s pretty flexible and allows me the time.”

“I’ve enjoyed being involved, to the degree I have been, with my kids’ schools, and on a district-wide level with the DPO [District Parents’ Organization].”

The DPO is a community organization working with the ICCSD to support the district’s schools. Each ICCSD school has two representatives in the DPO, the head of that school’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) and a representative appointed by the PTO.

“To a certain degree, public service is about connecting with people, hearing what they have to say and being able to respond. I’ve found I’ve really enjoyed doing that.”

What policy issues are motivating your run?

“As we move forward, I think we have to look at some of the policies that have gotten in the way of people participating in the district. One example of that is the printed warning the board has for anyone who wants to speak at a meeting.”

On the first page of the agenda for every school board meeting is the warning: “Please remember you are making comments in a public meeting. Should you make comments that the subject of the comments considers to be inflammatory or libelous, you, as an individual, may be subject to legal action brought by the subject of your comments.” School Board President Chris Lynch told the Press-Citizen the warning was not intended to stifle public criticism, but Eyestone disagrees.

“I think the warning is just there to discourage people from speaking their minds. It’s not helpful to anyone. The board doesn’t need to do this.”

“In terms of new policy, what we’re going to have to do is look at what we can do for our teachers since most of their bargaining power has been taken away. We’ll have to create policy around what they can and cannot do at the bargaining table.”

“We also need to make sure we’re carrying through on the policies we have now. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every two years when new board members are elected.”

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

“I think we struggle right now with giving good directions to the [ICCSD] administration. We’re really good at telling them what they’re doing wrong without telling them what we think would be a better result.”

“This is something I’ve dealt with in my professional background as an analytical lab manager, and a manager of people. I think I have the skills necessary to give good tools and direction to our administration, as to what I’m really looking for from them. I’ve learned that giving tools to your employees to do a better job is much more valuable than pointing the finger at what’s wrong.”

“Setting clear expectations is important, I think my professional background will really help me in that area. But it’s also important to give good feedback as to what should be expected from me, of what I’m going to provide. If I want to get things accomplished, then it’s important that I make it clear to the administration and the rest of the board what I really want to see happen.”

Do you support or oppose the bond issue? Why?

“My personal position is that I’m in favor of the bond.”

“I feel that a lot of the arguments against the bond are based more on how people feel about the [school district] administration than any particulars of the bond. There’s mistrust there, and it’s a valid feeling. All this surrounding distrust is what I want to address as a board member.”

“The bond itself addresses a lot of needs in the district. And so far, the district has done a good job following its facilities master plan.”

The ICCSD facilities master plan is a 10-year program for improving the district’s buildings approved by the school board in December 2013. In April 2015, the board approved an updated version of the plan, which extended the program through 2015.

“So, I trust the [ICCSD] administration to follow through on those projects that are still in the plan, which the bond will pay for.”

“There also needs to be a plan for future needs that aren’t going to be addressed by the bond –things that are 10 or 12 years down the road. We need to discuss these future needs, because doing so will address some of the concerns of people who are skeptical about the bond.”

What is your opinion on the use of seclusion rooms?

“This is one of those areas, where not being an expert, I’d solicit advice from experts. I think that’s what a board member has to do in general.”

“I’ve spoken to a special education teacher in our district, who told me that if we got rid of the seclusion rooms, she would quit her job. My impression at first was she must have to use the room a lot. But when I asked, she said she only ever used it five or six times. She only used as a very last resort. But the advice that she gave me was that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The rooms definitely have a purpose, when they are needed. So, I wouldn’t advocate getting rid of them altogether.”

“The bigger point she made to me was that behavior is a form of communication. So, the only way some kids who don’t have the verbal communication skills have to communicate is to start having behavior problems. That’s where the struggle lies. Every year she gets new special education students, and new paras [paraprofessional educators are staff members who assist teachers], and the problem is getting everyone on the same page, not having the time to work and train with the paras ahead of time. If just one isn’t aware of what is needed, it undermines the work of everyone.”

“We definitely have to make sure we’re using the rooms appropriately. And we’ve got make sure we’re supporting the teachers, so that they know we have their backs and we’ll give them the tools they need to make sure their paras know what they are doing.”

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

“We absolutely have to make our facilities compliant, but that’s the bare minimum. But we need to go above and beyond that. We lead in all sorts of things in this district — we’re a very strong college prep district, for example. We should be leading in this area as well.”

“You do have to draw the line somewhere, we don’t have unlimited funds. But we have to do better than minimum compliance.”

“We may need to revisit letting PTOs [Parent Teacher Organizations] raise funds for playgrounds, which they used to be able to do. That might take some of the burden off the district, and the district could then shift funds to other schools that can’t raise similar funds, in order to keep things more equitable.”

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

“It’s been a problem forever. We talked about it two years ago, and many years before that.”

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.

“There is a sense of urgency now, and that’s a big deal. They have strategic goals now, which they didn’t before in our district. When they implemented the Weighted Resource Allocation Model this past year to address class sizes at schools that have a higher number of students receiving FRL [free and reduced price lunches], I think that was a good place to start.”

In the 2015-2016 school year, ICCSD began using a Weighted Resource Allocation Model. This approach increases funding at schools with higher numbers of students with low scores on standardized achievement tests, allowing those school to decrease class size. Data collected thus far indicates improved performance by students in those schools.

“But using FRL solely to determine [how to reallocate resources] may not be the best way, it will be important to identify other factors, such as special education needs, to use as a guide.”

“I’m a data guy, I’m an analytical guy. That’s pretty much what I do all day — look at data to figure out what the bigger picture is telling you. That’s what we need to do with this data.”

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?

It’s going to have a huge impact if we don’t do something locally. Because we’re already seeing teachers being poached by neighboring states like Minnesota, where there are still protections for collective bargaining. I said before that we lead in a lot of areas in this district, and a lot of that is directly due to the quality of the teachers we have.”

“If we start to lose quality teachers, all the talk about facilities will seem small in comparison. If we don’t have good quality teachers sticking around and building relationships with students, we’re going to see serious academic slippage across the board.”

“The Iowa City area is an attractive place to live. But what’s also been attractive [to teachers] is that we’ve made our school district an attractive place to work, because of the strong relationship between our board and administration, and the unions. I think we were doing that not because of the law, but because that is what we want.”

“We are somewhat handcuffed in what we can and cannot do bargaining-wise, and that’s why the board will have to create policy to continue that strong relationship and show that we are supporting our teachers.”

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

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