Iowa City school board election: Q&A with Lisa Williams

In the Nov. 5 election, voters in the Iowa City Community School District will choose four of the seven members of the school board. Two current members, Shawn Eyestone and Paul Roesler, are running for reelection. Phil Hemingway and Lori Roetlin decided against seeking another term.

Little Village emailed questionnaires to the seven school board candidates. All the candidates were asked the same set of questions.

Lisa Williams — photo courtesy of the candidate

Lisa Williams, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, grew up in Iowa City, attending Horace Mann Elementary and South East Junior High. But that’s not her only personal connection to the Iowa City Community School District.

Her husband, Jason Schumann, is a teacher at City High School, where Williams has also volunteered as a coach of the school’s mock trial team for the past six years. The couple have two daughters. The oldest is a first-grader at Penn Elementary and the youngest will be a kindergartner at Penn next year.

What other public service organizations have you been active with? Have you served in elective office before? What made you interested in becoming active in public service?

While I have not previously served in elective office, I have been involved in public service since I was 19 years old. My parents instilled in me at a young age the value of giving back to our community through public service. In 1999, I enlisted in the Army Reserves, and in 2005, after law school, I direct commissioned into the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. In 2007, my unit was mobilized in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and I served a 12-month tour of duty. I was honorably discharged and then transitioned from the private practice of law to government service with the Department of Justice. Since 2010, I’ve been a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice.

Why did you choose to run for the school board, rather than some other elected office?

I am running for school board because I believe public education plays an essential role in building a strong foundation for our community. Our schools help us forge stronger bonds with our community and build a stronger foundation for our children’s future. Every student in our district deserves a first-class education that provides them with the knowledge and skills they need to compete in an increasingly global, collaborative and tech-centered workforce. Every teacher and staff member in our district also deserves to work in an environment where their professionalism is valued and the great service they render to our community is commended.

As the only democratically accountable voice in the education decision-making process, school board members must be opened minded, willing to evaluate different points of view and make informed decisions that are responsive to the needs of the community at large. I believe I possess the requisite experience, knowledge, temperament, judgment and skills to carry out this important role for our community.

What do you see as the biggest long-term issues the district is facing?

The biggest long-term issue we face as a district is how we overcome the systematic barriers to success resulting from poverty, inequality and institutional racism. The reading, math and disciplinary referral data is clear that we need to do a much better job addressing and closing the achievement gap for students in poverty, English language learners and students of color in our district.

While closing the achievement gap is our greatest challenge, I believe it also presents our greatest opportunity. We know some of the educational policies that work to address these problems. Studies show that developing more socioeconomically and demographically diverse schools, hiring and retaining more quality teachers of color, and placing an emphasis on early childhood education programs all help address disparities in educational achievement. These policies also provide a more inclusive learning environment for all students and better prepare students for an increasingly diverse workforce.

What do you see as the most pressing problems that the district can solve in the short term? What would you approach be to solving these problems?

I believe the most pressing problem is the board’s lack of a long-term vision for teaching and learning in our school district. The board must craft a vision that will then drive its policy decisions and provide guidance to the administrative team. Because I believe every student is entitled to an education where they build 21st century skills so they can be competitive in an increasingly global, collaborative and tech-centered workforce, we need to encourage and reward teachers for developing engaging and relevant curriculum in the areas of STEM, tech, trade and vocational education, as well as the humanities. We need to support, celebrate and foster greater access to art, music and foreign language education, never losing sight of the essential role these disciplines play in developing the whole child. As for teaching, we need to build more time into the teachers’ schedules to engage in meaningful and data-driven collaboration.

Another pressing problem is the lack of diversity among the administrative and teaching staff. The first step to attracting an outstanding and diverse pool of teachers is to honor and elevate the teaching profession in our community by giving teachers more support, greater respect and ample compensation. The board plays a critical role in ensuring our teachers have the resources, including the time, they need to produce high-quality instruction. The district needs to continue to build our relationships with teacher training programs to ensure access to young teachers with talent. We also should not, as a cost-saving measure, put a moratorium on hiring teachers with experience from outside the district or advanced degrees. Well-educated, experienced, reflective and dynamic teachers are worth the costs. The opportunity to work alongside quality experienced teachers and instructional coaches will also aid in new teacher retention.

To retain teachers, we also need to ensure a workplace culture in all of our schools that values teachers’ ideas and honors their service. This begins with open lines of communication between teachers and administrators. Teachers need to feel like their administrators value their input and they should not fear the repercussions of voicing their concerns to administration. As a board member, I promise to listen to and value teachers’ expert opinions. I will also make a commitment to spending time in schools to learn first-hand what teachers are facing on a day-to-day basis. Board members need this first-hand experience in schools to listen to teachers and make informed decisions.

What in your personal skill set, or previous experience, would make you an effective member of the school board?

As a veteran and federal prosecutor, I have been tasked throughout my career with making decisions in a transparent fashion based upon the best interests of the community. I was trained in these roles to analyze problems, issue spot solutions, ask questions and collect information before making an informed decision. Based upon these prior experiences, I believe I would bring valuable policy-making and oversight skills to the board.

The board also needs consensus builders to function effectively. Board members must not come to the table with personal vendettas, agendas or geographic biases, but instead must be able to impartially analyze issues from multiple perspectives. As a former ICCSD student, the wife of an ICCSD high school teacher, a mom of an ICCSD elementary school student and the coach of an ICCSD extracurricular activity, I believe I have the ability to view issues through the lens of a variety of different stakeholders in the education process and to build consensus around decisions that benefit all students and staff.

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