Tuesday’s elections saw Ottumwa voters turn out five members of the school board, ensuring the board will look very different in the near future. It was an unmistakable statement of dissatisfaction with the current board.
The incoming board will need to get up to speed quickly. It’s a challenge to come into any organization in a leadership role, especially one as complex as a school district. The challenge isn’t insurmountable, but the learning curve is significant.
There are a number of questions the new board will need to answer quickly. The fate of a proposed elementary school is in their hands, along with the question of its location should the board decide to continue with the process.
The Ottumwa school district poses significant challenges for those who guide it. The demographics of the district’s pupils have shifted quickly. Last month, the Washington Post’s analysis of the nation’s schools labeled Ottumwa one of Iowa’s few “newly diverse” school districts.
That assessment used figures from 1995 and 2017 to track changes. Ottumwa schools went from being 96.6 percent white to 64.1 percent white. The percentage of Hispanic students went from 0.5 percent to 24.2 percent. Other minority groups also saw large increases in their numbers.
Those changes haven’t always been smooth. There have been tensions, and we certainly wouldn’t claim the district has somehow become a multicultural utopia. But those changes are going to serve Ottumwa students well in a nation that is also becoming more diverse. Exposure to people whose backgrounds are different from your own at a young age can only help in the future.
So, what do we expect from the new board? Put simply, we expect the same as we do of any newly elected officials: Do your best. There will be hurdles along the way. There will likely be disagreements about what the best course for the board is. Those disagreements can be healthy, provided the differing views are presented in good faith and with the genuine goal of making the best decision the board can.
The Ottumwa school district has some real advantages. The new Pickwick Early Childhood Center has been, we believe, an unqualified success. There are also some very real challenges. The new board must find a way to get a handle on open enrollment, something the outgoing board failed to do.
The jobs the board members now have are tough. They’re going to be in the public eye in a way they probably aren’t used to, and that can bring its own challenges. But they also have the ability to shape and improve lives in a very direct manner. The school board may not be the first group alumni think of when they consider who affected their lives during their education, but the board certainly plays a role.
We can’t promise the work will be easy or always enjoyable. But it will always be important.
We wish the new board members luck.