Election 2021: Six candidates vie for three open seats on Mason City School Board

Tanya Keskar | The Chronicle

Many freedoms develop the culture of Mason High School, and the Mason City School Board plays a big role in making it possible.

The school board is a team of five individuals who are elected every four years and have ultimate authority over the school district. From eliminating valedictorian and salutatorian positions to instating a more relaxed dress code and even passing the first levy in fifteen years, the school board dictates the culture that the students in Mason City Schools experience on a day-to-day basis.

This year, election day is on November 2nd. There are three positions available with three incumbent members and three challengers running for the spots.

Maria Mueller is currently one of the Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics teachers at Mason High School and is also the president of the teacher’s union. Mueller has been teaching at Mason for 31 years and has witnessed the evolution of Mason culture throughout her tenure. Mueller said that the school board is an essential group of people that have the power to change some of the student’s most appreciated freedoms.

“Decisions that the school board makes impact everybody in the school district,” Mueller said. “Those five people and decisions they make have a significant impact on the community as a whole. As we know, in a democracy, [the school board’s] responsibility is to, with wisdom and knowledge, meet the needs of the community as best as they can.”

In Mason, the school board’s only role, by law, is to hire the superintendent and the treasurer to handle the day-to-day operations. The members also oversee finances and approve all of the major decisions– approving new teachers, forming focus groups and even passing levies. Mueller said that the priorities that are set by the school board pave the way for district leadership within the Mason City Schools.

“The priorities that the board sets and promotes will guide who they hire,” Mueller said.

“[A student’s] experience at growing and developing will be shaped by those leaders.”

This year, masks have been an especially controversial issue in many school districts, including Mason City Schools. On August 17th, 2021, masks became required for Mason students in pre-kindergarten to sixth grade. Superintendent Jonathan Cooper, backed by the school board, announced this decision a few days prior and was met with backlash from the community, as masks were previously optional. Charles Galvin is the current president of the Mason City School Board and is an incumbent candidate for the upcoming election. Galvin said that he believes that the school board was able to give Cooper some flexibility in implementing decisions for the betterment of the district.

“Last year, we as a board passed a motion to give our superintendent some authority and flexibility as he saw things changing to make the best decision,” Galvin said. “We wanted him to be able to make those decisions as he saw fit and quickly, so that it wasn’t something that wasn’t voted on necessarily on a weekly or monthly basis. We want to make sure that student health is at the forefront.”

Melissa Kramer has been a long-term Mason community member and is running for a position on the Mason City School Board with a goal to make sure Mason schools stay competitive. Kramer said that she challenges certain past decisions of the school board, including the mask mandates.

“I think that if you feel very comfortable wearing [a mask], you should wear one, and if for some reason, you don’t feel comfortable, it shouldn’t be mandated,” Kramer said. “But I do think people should use safety and precautions. Obviously, we’re in a pandemic — and hopefully coming out of that — but I think people should be courteous and polite and respect whatever makes the other person feel comfortable.”

Ian Orr is running for the second time as a candidate for the Mason City School Board. He ran during the 2017 election and is now running again intending to increase communication and transparency between the school board and the community. Orr was quite surprised at the board and superintendent’s decision to enforce a mask mandate for pre-kindergarten to sixth-grade students after previously stating they would not require masks.

“We just want to make sure that any decisions that we make look out, not only for the best interest of our students and staff, but our community as a whole,” Orr said. “I can’t formulate an opinion on whether they made a good decision or a bad decision because I didn’t hear it. But, I would like to hear it. I would like to hear what they heard and know what they know so I can have a better understanding of how they arrived at the decision they made.”

Connie Yingling has been on the Mason City School Board since 1999 and is running for re-election. Her goal is to continue Mason’s momentum and serve the community. Yingling said that the school board is primarily dedicated to ensuring the safety and betterment of all students.

“I would just like for everyone to really know that the board right now is a hundred percent committed to the safety of students and to the betterment of their education,” Yingling said “Our attempt is to minimize the negative impact of masking kids. We only want to do it when it involves keeping kids in school as much as possible.”

Through the last few years, the Mason City School district has been putting an emphasis on creating an inclusive culture within the school district. To do this, the school board has approved many actions, including anti-bias training for students in the high school and the formation of the Mason High School Inclusive Excellence (IE) Leadership Team, led by students and staff. Matt Steele, elected to the school board in 2011 and having completed two consecutive terms, is running for re-election and has been a part of these developments. Steele said that the goal of the school board on this issue is to increase empathy within the district.

“[We’re] trying to close the gap of understanding the impact of words,” Steele said. “Moving it, to a place of understanding our students and opening our eyes to somebody else’s experience in a way that we were falling short of doing before.”

These changes have been met with mixed responses from the community, especially in light of a larger national conversation regarding student education and critical race theory (CRT). Yingling is dedicated to keeping the IE programs to uphold the values of the school district.

“There is a lot of discussion now about critical race theory,” Yingling said. “There have been other ideas throughout the year and I think what we’ve found, and what I’m committed to, is keeping the integrity of the district intact. We have always wanted to provide opportunities for every child.”

Melissa Kramer said that she believes having elements of “Stepping up to Bias” and inclusive excellence are effective, but need to be left as extracurriculars and not part of core academics.

“I do feel like we need to continue to focus on the academic portion of public education,” Kramer said “I think it’s amazing that Mason offers all of these different opportunities for inclusivity. It’s all important, because again, everybody is individual, and they have their own ideas for things — clubs, sports, etc. But I don’t think it should be part of the actual academic curriculum.”

Another major move met with controversy was the removal of the valedictorian and salutatorian graduating standings at Mason High School in 2018. Matt Steele, an incumbent member of the school board since 2011, was part of the process to recognize and take action as a result of a highly competitive culture.

“Our students asked for it,” Steele said. “It was the right thing to do.”

Debbie Williams, a parent of Mason graduates, decided to run for school board this year after recognizing a gradual change in Mason culture. Williams said that she believes that this move was a result of trying to water down the curriculum for the students falling behind. This poses as a roadblock for students who were trying to aim towards top positions. She advocates for reinstating the valedictorian and salutatorian positions at Mason High School for future graduating classes.

“This is one of the dumbest decisions Mason Schools has made,” Williams said. “In life there is pressure. On your job, you can’t say, ‘I can’t get it so nobody should get it.’”

Likewise, dress code has been a very contentious debate throughout the years. In the last few years, however, the Mason City School Board has been approving a student handbook with a much more relaxed dress code to allow for more flexibility in student attire to reflect changing styles and attitudes. According to Mueller, changes to the student handbook require the board to look over it.

“The school board ultimately approves of all decisions,” Mueller said. “Something like a student handbook is actually going to get a direct vote from the school board.

According to Williams, the real world requires dress codes and rules, so she does not believe that the updated dress code was a positive policy change. Williams said that her goal is to enforce a stricter dress code with clear consequences for students.

“If there are no consequences for people, they just keep pushing the buttons,” Williams said. “You’re not teaching the children the right things and how to live in this world. And that’s what school is supposed to do — prepare you to be an adult, a good human, a good citizen and to be a good American.”

Mason is a very competitive school district, which can put a lot of pressure on students. Some candidates believe that more emphasis needs to be put on vocational training opportunities and provide other routes for students besides college.

Mason offers a wide array of AP (Advanced Placement) classes for college preparedness and has many resources that guide students through the college application process. In 2017, 83.1% of the graduating class entered college within two years of leaving high school.

“I think there is a huge focus in Mason for college preparedness,” Kramer said. “Which obviously is super important, but there is a whole group of kids too, who I think, maybe are not being included, and [we should be] helping them if they understand that maybe college isn’t for them.”

Williams said that she agrees that Mason puts a lot of pressure on students to choose college as their path after high school. She believes that the school board needs to do a better job to let students know that their path is valued whether they choose to go to college or pursue a vocational career.

“They need to do a well-rounded thing like they did when I was little — maybe let some kids go into a vocational [career], let them know it is okay. If [college isn’t] what they want to do, continue their education and get them life skills,” Williams said. “Mason can put a lot of pressure on kids, especially those performing in the top 10-15%.”

Williams also believes that sex education should be removed from the Mason curriculum and left to family. Currently, the Mason curriculum teaches topics regarding sexual education and drug abuse (with programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D. A. R. E.) at the elementary school and the Health classes in middle and high school, which are a graduation requirement.

“The sexual education program that they’re promoting is getting younger and younger, deeper and deeper,” Williams said. “I think that’s a door that needs to be [opened] not by the school, but by parents and families. “

The school board guides the direction of the goals of the district, and the individuals on the school board make it possible. All Mason citizens over 18 years, including high school students who are 18, are eligible to vote for the school board candidates. The votes of the Mason community will determine the future of education in Mason, and the future of Mason students. Mueller encourages Mason students to start involving themselves in local politics.

“This is a great election to get your feet wet and enter into voting,” Mueller said. “This [is] a great moment. And so, definitely engage.”

Graphics by Nishka Mishra