There is an interesting study in contrasts playing out right now in Iowa.
One example comes from the Davis County School District in Bloomfield. It is the 96th-largest of Iowa’s 328 public districts, with an enrollment of 1,150 students.
The other example comes from the Iowa Legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The Davis County school board is wrestling with an incredibly difficult decision — whether to hold classes four days a week instead of the traditional five-day-a-week schedule.
The decision-making process has been marked by ongoing public information over the past five months. There has been lots of opportunity for people to ask questions about what is best for the Davis County schools and Davis County kids.
The process is geared both for learning what people in the district want and for helping the community become comfortable with the decision the school board eventually makes.
On the other hand, the solid Republican majorities in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate, with a Republican in the governor’s office, seem more interested in gaining legislative victories and less interested in following a process that builds confidence and acceptance among Iowans whose opinions differ from the Republicans.
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There are several reasons the Davis County School District has been thinking about switching to a four-day schedule. Money is not the prime motivation, but eliminating one day of classes would cut fuel costs for school buses by 20 percent. That is not insignificant. Davis County has one of the biggest bus fleets in rural Iowa because the district covers the entire county. And every dollar spent on transportation is a dollar not available for classroom learning.
The bigger reason for the possible schedule change would be to make it easier to recruit and retain quality teachers in a rural county where the closest Walmart is a half-hour drive.
The decision-making process being used in Davis County has been refreshing. Last October, Superintendent Dan Maeder created a team to formally study the pros and cons of a four-day school week.
Business owners, parents of students and other residents have been looped in. School employees were surveyed. Informational meetings were held via Zoom so people could hear what was being learned and ask questions. Representatives from Waco of Wayland and Moulton-Udell, two rural districts that have already switched to a four-day week, shared the pluses and the minuses. And more community forums are planned in the coming weeks.
Through all of this, Maeder has been available to the public, the people for whom he works — at his office, at school board meetings, at school activities, and at the Casey’s or Brothers Market — if local folks have questions to ask or comments to offer.
The process Maeder and the board are following certainly contrasts with the process we see at the Iowa Capitol.
Parents whose opinions are in line with the governor’s on LGBTQ issues, controversial school books or other hot-button topics can get meetings with her or have their calls returned by her aides. Parents of LGBTQ kids or people who oppose banning certain books are frustrated by the governor’s refusal to meet with them.
In the Legislature, it is not unusual for the public to get less than one day’s notice before a controversial bill is debated. Sometimes an important proposal is introduced in the Legislature, voted on by both the House and Senate, and then signed into law by the governor, all in just a handful of days.
Three weeks ago, the governor unveiled a huge bill to reorganize the Executive Branch of state government. Unlike Dan Maeder, Reynolds and her staff have not been available to answer reporters’ questions, or the public’s, about the far-reaching bill. That there are questions should surprise no one, because the document authorizing the reorganization, Senate Study Bill 1123, is 1,570 pages long.
One worrisome section would change the longstanding practice of when Iowa’s attorney general, rather than the locally elected county attorney, prosecutes an accused criminal. For nearly 50 years, the attorney general has stepped in only when the county attorney asks for help.
Reynolds’ government reorganization makes clear the attorney general could choose to prosecute any criminal case, even without an invitation from the local county attorney.
That change raises concerns political considerations could be injected into the decision whether someone is, or is not, prosecuted on criminal charges. While campaigning last year for Brenna Bird, Iowa’s new attorney general, Reynolds often told voters, “I want my own attorney general.”
But giving the governor her own attorney general gives many Iowans the hives.
That is especially true with some lawmakers pushing for teachers and librarians to be prosecuted for the books they make available or for transgender people to be prosecuted for using bathrooms not matching their gender at birth.
Calhoun County Attorney Tina Meth-Farrington, the president of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, is a Republican like Reynolds and Bird. She told the Cedar Rapids Gazette she believes the governor’s proposal is intended to allow the attorney general to prosecute local cases if a county attorney chooses not to file charges.
“It’s there because there’s a concern there have been county attorneys who campaigned on spending time and resources on more important things instead of low-level crimes,” Meth-Farrington said, apparently a reference to new Polk County Attorney Kimberly Graham, a Democrat.
Graham has pledged not to prosecute low-level drug crimes like marijuana possession. She also has vowed to not ask for bail for people not considered to be a threat, although a judge, not the prosecutor, makes that decision.
Meth-Farrington told the Gazette, “I don’t want this office politicized, and this is kind of throwing politics into the game. I just don’t like that.”
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