Courier Staff Writer
A five-term representative will go up against a political newcomer this year as both vie for the House District 81 seat.
The Nov. 6 election will decide who will represent House District 81 for the next two years — incumbent Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa, or challenger Blake Smith, R-Ottumwa.
This year, redistricting means House District 81 covers the eastern half of Wapello County, including Ottumwa, Agency and Eldon, rather than the western half, which now falls in House District 80.
Gaskill said she hopes to focus on education reform in the next legislature, should she be re-elected.
Six task forces were created as part of Senate File 2284 this year: Administrator Evaluation, Competency-Based Instruction, Instructional Time, Early Childhood Assessment, Teacher Leadership and Compensation, and Teaching Standards and Teacher Evaluation.
Four of the task forces reported Monday their recommendations to improve education, which include local school districts setting the length of a school day, changing state law to require 180 hours of classroom time versus 180 days, a clarification on the start of the school year, and new systems to evaluate teachers and administrators.
“There’s a lot of work still to be done,” Gaskill said.
She said the four hours collaboration time for teachers is important for development.
“When I was county auditor, area county auditors would get together, talk and discuss work procedures,” she said. “It always was a learning experience, and I’d like to see teachers have that opportunity.”
One thing Gaskill is adamant about is boosting teacher pay. If starting teacher pay is increased, it would take Iowa from 39th to ninth in the nation, she said.
A proposal from the Teacher Leadership and Compensation task force last week recommended increased pay, stipends for teachers in hard-to-fill jobs and a five-tier classification system of teachers.
The proposal would cost the state $150 million, Gaskill said, which Department of Education Director Jason Glass has said would likely have to come from new sources.
“We have $1 billion in our ending fund,” Gaskill said. “But that might be considered one-time money. We need to develop a plan to finance education and stick with it.”
She also wants to focus on allowable growth, which she would like to see at 4 percent.
“We really need to act quickly setting it for 2014 for our schools,” she said. “This is the second time in three years the legislature didn’t set allowable growth and left it at zero percent.”
At 4 percent allowable growth, she said the cost per pupil would increase from $6,001 to $6,241.
She would also like to secure funding so all preschool-age children have the opportunity to go to preschool.
Gaskill said if re-elected, she’d like to get more involved in the economic growth committee at the state house, since her committee assignments conflicted in the past. Gaskill served on environmental protection, state government and transportation committees this year, as well as chairing the local government committee.
“Because of my knowledge and life experience at the state house, I think I’m the best candidate to serve this district,” she said.
In the less than three weeks remaining before the general election, Smith said his focus is on getting his message out through door-knocking, phone calls and talking with area business owners.
“I have a pro-jobs message, with fiscal responsibility,” Smith said.
Smith did recognize, though, the uphill battle a Republican could experience in this election, since Wapello County, in general, votes Democrat.
“I think we need new people, new politicians concerned about the future,” he said.
As a college student — Smith graduates from Buena Vista University this spring — he worries that finding a job in the county will be next to impossible.
“Jobs are few and far between,” he said. “We need to keep families here and quit taxing our retirees.”
Smith also said the tax burden on retirees needs to be significantly lowered.
“No budget should be on the backs of our retirees, who have earned their money their whole lives,” he said. “This is why grandma and grandpa move to Florida. And then that’s why their grandkids move to Florida, to be closer to them.”
The priority right now is jobs, he said, and “everything else will fall into line if we get industry here.”
“Cargill didn’t need to go to Eddyville, Pioneer didn’t need to go to Keokuk County,” he said. “We can be as successful, as populated as Des Moines, as Iowa City, as Cedar Rapids. We have the infrastructure here.”
His focus would be on bringing industry to the district, he said.
“People are hired and quit jobs all the time here,” he said. “We need long-lasting, good-paying jobs.”
Job growth is essential, he said, something Wapello County has struggled with for a long time.
He would also like to revive items that were left behind in the last legislature, such as corporate tax and property tax reform and voter ID laws.
While some have expressed concern over Smith’s age, he said legislation wouldn’t have passed allowing those 21 and older to run if the legislature didn’t want young people in office.
“I think we need young people in office,” he said. “Young people have an eye for the future.”
Smith, 24, said if elected, he wouldn’t stay past three or four terms.
“I love politics and getting involved, but I don’t want to be tainted,” he said. “If people think I’m doing a good job, they’ll re-elect me.”