Interview: Iowa City school board candidate Ruthina Malone 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.

Ruthina Malone — photo by Jason Smith

Ruthina Malone wants to bring her experience as both an administrator and as a parent of an Iowa City school student to the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) Board. Malone is the department administrator for Psychological and Brain Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa.

She is running for one of the three board seats with a four year term.

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

“Having a daughter who’s been in the Iowa City school district from K through 12, I’ve seen some problems the district has that haven’t greatly improved over the years. One of those things is the achievement gap, as it relates to students of color, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and students with disabilities. It’s highlighted every year in an annual report, but only recently has the district started moving on concrete plans to address it with the Weighted Resource Allocation Model. That’s great, but I still think we have to actually put some more steam behind it.”

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

“My concern is that we’re doing a disservice to a lot of those kids because we don’t have people at the table pushing the envelope and saying, ‘This is great, but what else can we do.’”

“Also, coming from Chicago — I was born and raised there — and seeing things there go where they were when in I was school to where they are now, I know I don’t want to see that evolution of failure happen here in Iowa City.”

“My husband is a school teacher in the district, so that played a role in [the decision to run], too. It’s helped me see how teachers viewed some of the things that were happening at the policy setting level with the board and the [ICCSD] administration.”

“I want to do my part to make things better, instead of sitting around complaining about it with friends, or just writing Facebook posts about it.”

What policy issues are motivating your run?

“Looming underneath almost everything in our district is a fear of retaliation. I spent a lot of this summer going out and talking with people who work in our district, and that was a concern they raised. Not necessarily from the perspective of it being the administration versus teachers, instead it seemed to be more a question of leadership. For example, the comment at the beginning of the board meetings warning people that you can be sued.”

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.

“A lot of people pointed to that to say that the board is setting an example by saying they are going to retaliate if they don’t like what you’re going to say. There’s concern that if our leadership are behaving like that, others will do the same type of thing.”

“Hearing that from people that we have in charge of our kids was just disheartening. I want to make sure they feel comfortable enough that they can raise issues that they see as being alarming, and not feel as though they’re going to lose their jobs because they don’t agree with the people sitting at the table making policy.”

“Also, as I said, I commend the district for WRAM, but I’m concerned that we might wait too long to try more than one program while we’re waiting for all the data from WRAM. If we keep waiting to see if this one program is working, we’re failing other kids by not looking at what else we can use to address these issues.”

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

“Not only have I volunteered quite a bit within the school district, but there’s also my professional job. I work as an administrator for the University of Iowa. In that role, I deal with human resources, financial management, building management — things that I think all board members need to have a healthy understanding of. Particularly in supervising an employee, and understanding you need to make sure that you have strong written goals that you can use to hold a person accountable.”

“Anybody that’s lived in our district for more than six months has heard people say Murley’s not doing a good job. [Stephen Murley has been Superintendent of Schools for ICSSD since 2010.] There’s a lot of troubling things that have happened under his watch as a superintendent, but that doesn’t seem to be reflected when you look at the raises he’s received.”

In 2016, the school board approved a new contract for Murley that provided for 4.6 percent increase in that year, increasing his salary from $205,500 to $215,000, and 5 percent increase for the 2017-18 school year, which will boost his salary to $226,000.

“I’m not at the table, so I’m assuming that if they gave him [those raises], he must have met their goals. We need to make sure we have goals that actually promote our district’s well-being, that are addressing some of the issues we know that we’re not succeeding in, like ADA compliance and special education.”

“We need to make sure everyone understands our goals and knows they will be held accountable. But we need to that in a collaborative process. And I have that type of supervisory experience, because that’s what I do in my current job.”

“In addition, I was trained as a counselor. So, I’m trained to listen to people, and see different points of view. And I think that’s very much needed in this role as the board.”

Do you support or oppose the bond issue? Why?

“I’m in favor of the bond.”

“Just being a parent of a child who has been totally educated in the district, and knowing of some of its failures — just something as simple as the climate control in buildings. Asthma can be triggered by severe cold or severe heat. I know that’s happened with my daughter, and I know my child is not the only child in the district who has had a medical issue exacerbated in that way.”

“When I think about that, I know I’m willing to pay that additional tax increase on my property.”

“I also think about the teachers. I have not met a teacher who is against the bond. And if they are truly there to serve our kids, what better way to support them than by making sure they have the facilities they need in order to accomplish their jobs?”

What is your opinion on the use of seclusion rooms?

“The current use of them is a disgrace, and so is the current type of room that we have. We should not placing kids in plywood boxes, and we should not be doing it for disciplinary reasons. That has to stop.”

“I do know that we need to provide safe spaces for kids, so we can’t just say ‘Let’s dismantle every single seclusion room and not put anything else in place.’ I want to make sure we are doing our part for those kids who have [a need for seclusion] that is in their IEP [Individual Educational Program], and whose parents agree that sometimes [the student’s] behavior will escalate to a point that seclusion is needed.”

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

“We have to make sure we provide that service to keep the kids [with seclusion in their IEP] safe, other kids in the classroom safe and the teacher safe. So, we have to make sure we’re doing the right thing, and begin by eliminating the plywood boxes.”

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

“Immediately my thought goes to a lot of our playgrounds. I’m hearing and seeing that those aren’t ADA compliant. We have to correct that right away, especially when a promise was made that that wouldn’t be an issue.”

“If the bond passes, it allows us to make some of our buildings ADA compliant because right now — Mann for example, that’s a school that is nowhere near ADA compliant. I believe the principal has said that there is not one restroom in that building that can be classified as ADA compliant. That’s a shame. We need to make sure our kids or visitors or parents can access everything in a building without having to rely on someone else.”

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, and adding new ADA complaint restrooms.

“As a board, we will need to figure out where those funds will come from to address some of those needs that won’t be covered in the bond, if it passes. And how do we address those, if the bond doesn’t pass?”

“Those are conversations I want to have right away.”

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

“There are different tools in the toolbox we can use, and I don’t want to put myself out as the specialist on some of these things, because we actually have some pretty good administrators in [ICCSD] central administration who have studied this. I think as a board, we need to empower [those administrators] and allow them to bring that information to us, so we can formulate a good, strong plan to start addressing that.”

“I want us to look at what other districts that are using WRAM are doing in addition to that. For example, looking at different professional training for teachers, related to, sometimes, implicit bias. We’re doing that — slowly, but we are working on it.”

“We need to make sure that the staff we have understand that [finding methods besides WRAM to address the achievement gap] is a priority for us, and that we need to formulate policies now.”

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?

“If our board doesn’t do anything, it will have an impact on our teachers. We’re already starting to see other states advertising, or pointing out, that they still have collective bargaining agreements.”

“As a board member, I’d want to make sure we have policies in place that address some of the things that were stripped away, so that our teachers and our unions know we’re still going to have these conversations and we’re offering some protection. Because otherwise we will start to see teachers either leave our area, or leave the profession, because they can’t be sure how future boards will deal with them.”

“I don’t think anybody wants that.”

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

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