Interview: Iowa City school board candidate Laura Westemeyer 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.

Laura Westemeyer — photo by Paul Brennan

Laura Westemeyer wants to bring her experience as both a business owner and someone who has worked with children with special needs to the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD). Westemeyer founded the Children’s Center for Therapy in Iowa City, which provides services and therapy for children with special needs. She sold the center to ChildServe, an Iowa chain of child therapy facilities, last year.

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

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

“Social justice is a huge part of my family, and it was a big part of my life growing up. I’m a believer that everyone is so important in this world. Especially every child.”

“My advocacy with the Childern’s Center for Therapy and the other programs I’ve helped to start has allowed me to really work to make a difference in the lives of children and their families.”

“When I started the Children’s Center, a lot of people said, ‘You’re in Iowa City, there’s all these pediatric services there already.’ But we still created our niche, and had hundreds of kids coming through our doors every single week. So, I feel I have the vision and intuition to take a project I’m passionate about and make it happen.”

“I’m struggling with where we’re going as a district, and where we’re going as a community, so I felt I had to be a part of the change we need in this community.”

What policy issues are motivating your run?

“First of all, we need to have more questioning of what the district is doing and what the board is doing. We need to involve the people in the process. The board may not agree with what the public has to say, but people need to feel their voices are being heard. That’s why I’m opposed to the libel warning being printed on the board’s agenda.”

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 that the warning was not intended to stifle public criticism.

“Why we’re not trying to promote closer communications with families, I don’t know. When you work with the families feeling the most frustration, they become the biggest advocates for positive change.”

“There are other policies I’m interested in, as well. But a primary focus will be following through and actually doing what we say we’re going to do in our policies. For example, the Shimek playground. We said we were going to create an accessible playground, but despite all the work done there, the Shimek playground is not accessible.”

A new playground at Shimek Elementary that was supposed meet all the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act had to be modified because it was not fully accessible to people with limited mobility.

“We’re not embracing career and technical education, and special education. I want to see the district do that.”

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

“As a business owner for 12 years, somebody who grew something from nothing, I know the importance of compromise, and of being open to finding what works best. It’s about listening to people doing good work, and letting them create their vision.”

“I feel like I’m a good team worker. I’m good at knowing when to give someone the license to go ahead with their vision, and when to pull back a little and provide more supervision.”

“I think I’m a good manager, as my background shows, and part of what I learned growing my business was to be a good fiscal manager.”

Do you support or oppose the bond issue? Why?

“I’m against the bond.”

“First of all, I think it should be smaller and more focused. There’s nothing in there for special education or career and technical [education]. If 50 percent of our jobs come from [fields requiring] career and technical [education], there are some challenges there we need to address.”

“We’ve got people up in the North Corridor, who say there are not enough seats [and the bond won’t provide for enough expansion of schools there], and people on the south side saying there is nothing in the bond for them. And for people on fixed incomes, there’s a lot concern about the cost of the bond and spending that much money.”

“On top of all that, we have [an ICSSD] administration that have not shown themselves to be trustworthy, or accountable to do what they say they’re going to do.”

What is your opinion on the use of seclusion rooms?

“It’s just unconscionable to me that we have thrown children into seclusion boxes, when they are not standing in line correctly or for other similar disciplinary reasons.”

“There’s no question that we need a safe space for kids [with certain disorders that have been diagnosed by medical professionals]. But making the decision [about whether using seclusion is appropriate] needs to be done with a principal and a parent and a student and a teacher and a behavioral analyst. And it needs to be done with complete transparency.”

“Those plywood boxes have to go. It needs to be a safe space, first and foremost. And we need to have a process in place that works toward other options besides just putting them into a safe space. Finding ways to help children calm themselves is a better plan, but we don’t have those options in the schools right now.”

“I’m not saying every time the rooms were used it was wrong. But when they are used as often as they were being used, it was clearly being done improperly. The policy wasn’t clear, and it wasn’t following the state mandates. I don’t necessary blame the staff, they were just doing what they were told to do. It’s just about setting better policy, and training our staff to follow the policy.”

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

“We need to realize [the ADA] is not a recommendation, it’s a law. There are some areas where they [the ICSSD administration] are doing a phenomenal job, but there are areas where they are not doing enough. Even the most recent playgrounds that have been built are not accessible.”

“One of the things I wish the bond would specify is specifically what the accessibility needs are for each building and what is to be done in each.”

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

“We definitely need to close the achievement gap.”

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.

“Bringing parents and bringing families into the process of helping their children, to me, is a huge part of closing the achievement gap. As long as families feel their input isn’t wanted, it doesn’t help build the relationship between the school and the family, and it doesn’t help the relationship between the school and the child. There are students and their families who feel very isolated.”

“We need to open the lines of communication and be more transparent. We also need to listen more to the teachers and get their input.”

“I believe the Weighted Resources Allocation Model and the lower class sizes have helped, but we need to do more.”

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 schools to decrease class size. Data collected thus far indicates improved performance by students in those schools.

“I’m also a big believer in phonemic awareness.”

Phonemic awareness is an approach to reading that concentrates on getting children to understand language by paying attention to phonemes, the smallest units of spoken language. A report by the National Reading Panel of the National Institutes of Health published in 2000 found that phonemic awareness improved reading comprehension in children.

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?

“I really hope we still support our teachers, because I think the greatest asset we have are our teachers. We need to find a way to remain competitive with their wages, to keep them here. We need to try to turn this around, and if that takes lobbying the state legislature, we need to do it.”

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

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