Masks, equity issues, campaigns with money: 3 takeaways from Story County's school board races

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

The results of Tuesday's school board elections in Story County show at least one trend that applies to more than one district in the area, and that's that voters continue to be increasingly interested in the governance of their local schools.

That's especially true in Ames, where almost twice as many votes were cast in Tuesday's school board election as in 2019 and more than two and a half times the total cast in 2017.

According to the unofficial election results, there were slightly fewer registered voters in the county Tuesday than there were in 2019 — 69,938 in this election, compared to 70,614 in 2019 — but overall turnout was higher, with almost 21% of registered voters turning out to cast ballots Tuesday. Just more than 12% or registered voters turned out to vote in 2019; turnout was 8.7% in 2017.

Though Tuesday's ballot was shared with local municipal races such as for city councils, the total number of votes cast specifically in school board races in Ames and Gilbert also increased compared to competitive races for similar seats in 2017 and 2019.

In Ames, more than 26,500 votes were cast in this week's school board election, compared to more than 13,600 in 2019 and just under 9,900 in 2017.

In Gilbert, more than 2,100 school board votes were cast this week, compared to more than 1,800 in 2019 and just under 1,200 in 2017.

The rise wasn't true across the county, though. In Nevada, the more than 2,300 votes cast in Tuesday's school board race for five candidates vying for two open seats was less than the more than 2,600 votes cast in 2019 for eight candidates vying for three seats. Both numbers vastly exceeded the 305 votes cast in school board races in 2017.

A look at overall population growth:Ames, Huxley see growth while Boone population lags, 2020 Census shows

Ames' new School Board members read elections as an endorsement of district's focus on diversity, equity

The three winners of open school board seats in Ames Tuesday — Amy Erica Smith, Kelly Winfrey and Brett Becker — read their victories as a call for the district to continue its work on diversity, equity and inclusion.

The issue was raised in candidate forums and was central to many candidates' campaigns in the weeks leading up to the election — as was the district's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its ongoing face mask mandate to combat the disease  — but it wasn't the only one.

The district is searching for a new superintendent, and the search firm hired to help in that process last week presented the school board with conclusions to be drawn from a survey, focus groups and interviews with more than 1,200 total participants this fall about what people in the community are looking for.

More:Smith, Winfrey, Becker win Ames School Board spots — 'a real win' for inclusion work, one says

The search firm's work identified that people's concerns about the district included staff retention, student behaviors, a divided community and a need for stable district leadership.

Tuesday's winners spoke about some of those issues when asked what was important to them that they hope to take action on as board members.

Becker said he wanted to hear more conversation in the leadup to the election about staffing — including for mental health and counseling — and he added that teachers are overworked and underpaid.

Winfrey said how the district moves forward with a new superintendent and builds relationships with the wider community will be important. "We are at a place where we can really make some decisions about what we want to be as a school district," she said.

Smith said immediate priorities should be hiring a superintendent who is able to help teachers in the district feel that they are part of a collaborative process, putting together the district's next budget and equity work.

Story County voters elect school board members who plan to stay the course on masks in school

The future of any face mask mandate or lack of one in a school district depends on more than just who's been elected to the district's board of directors.

Even candidates or incumbents who've said they're against mandates could still face the possibility of a future surge in cases, and health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will likely update guidance on mask-wearing in schools as more children get vaccinated against COVID-19.

More:Kids ages 5-11 ready to 'trash' their masks now that vaccines are available; Aaron Rodgers tests positive: COVID updates

For now, the CDC continues to recommend universal indoor masking for everyone at schools because of the more infectious delta coronavirus variant.

In Iowa, the future of any school mask mandates currently in place or the ability to put one in place will also depend on the outcome of a court case — in which a judge's ruling has for the moment put aside a state law banning mandates to allow for districts to have made the choices they've made so far.

Still, the politics around masks and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies were part of the lead-up to this year's school board elections. 

More:Conservatives sweep Ankeny School Board election, putting mask mandate in question

In Ames, Becker, Smith and Winfrey have said they will follow CDC guidelines on mask-wearing in schools.

In Ballard, where masks are currently optional, the Tuesday's winners — incumbent Darin Wohlgemuth and newcomer Stacey Noe — have said they do not want to see a mandate implemented there. Wohlgemuth said the area's infection rate doesn't justify one — though he was open to a mandate if conditions changed — and Noe said the choice should be up to parents unless or until the state says otherwise.

In Gilbert, where masks are optional, new school board members Josh Bennett and Alexander Janorschke have also opposed a mandate.

In Nevada, where there's not a mask mandate except for on school buses, winning incumbent Joe Anderson has said while he would not currently want a mandate, "If it comes down to choosing between closing our school buildings or requiring masks, that is when I would be likely to support a mask requirement."

Fellow winner Amici Hayek, a newcomer to the board in Nevada, has said she supports parental choice, though, "Feedback from community members as well as regulations from the state and federal levels help guide current and future decision-making as it relates to both mask mandates and other universal policies."

In Ames' expensive school board race, money often coincided with wins — but not always

Ames school board candidates collectively spent much more money this election, making it by far the most expensive school board election in the city since at least 2017.

More:Ames School Board candidates spend nearly $32k on their campaigns, making 2021 the priciest school election in years

Did all that money coming in correlate with the candidates' chances of winning, however?

As of five days before the election, the candidates' were ranked Amy Erica Smith, Kelly Winfrey, Rolf Duvick, Kira Werstein, Brett Becker, Tom Purl and William Scott Dryer in terms of who had spent the most money, according to campaign finance records.

The candidates' ranking by who got the most share of the vote on Tuesday is Smith, Winfrey, Becker, Werstein, Purl, Duvick and Dryer. Smith, Winfrey and Becker won seats on the board.