Sheldon superintendent worried about public education’s future

Sheldon School District superintendent Robin Spears tells the school board Monday, May 14, that he is deeply concerned about the future of public education in Iowa. He said voters must support candidates who back public schools.  School board vice president Susan Rensink and district business manager LaDonn Hartzell. 

Tom Lawrence

Tom Lawrence

May 14, 2018

SHELDON—Sheldon School District superintendent Robin Spears is in his waning days in public education, with his retirement set at the end of the June.

That doesn’t mean Spears isn’t passionate about it, however. At the school board meeting Monday, May 14, he sounded an alarm on state funding for Iowa’s public schools.

“I’m really concerned for public education,” he told the board. “I’m afraid for where Iowa is going.”

Spears said after the Iowa Legislature altered collective bargaining rules in 2017 and reduced the level of state funding this year, with an effort to drastically reduce if not eliminate “backfill” funding for local governments, public education is under siege.

This will result in trouble with teachers, he said, and cause tremendous disruption in the educational process.

“Failure to adequately invest in public education and meet the needs of students will have a devastating impact on Iowa public schools,” he wrote in a report to the board. “If Iowa remains on the current path that we are on, we will look like West Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky do today — a bankrupt public education system.”

Then, in all caps, he finished with, “Our kids deserve more.”

Spears said there is one way to correct this: Vote for lawmakers who are connected to public schools. Right now, many legislators are the graduates of private schools or were home-schooled, and their children also are not public school alumni, he said.

“They do not care about public schools,” Spears said.

He said if more legislators with a positive outlook on public schools are not elected, “We are in big trouble.”

Threat to democracy

Spears said it’s more than challenges to schools. Public education teaches young people about American history and government, from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to the Bill of Rights.

“We are the only thing that will hold our democracy together,” he said.

Spears’ spirited presentation, which left him a bit emotional, was the product of a lot of thinking about the issue, he said. He is departing from the Sheldon School District after 21 years as superintendent and has been in public education for more than three decades.

He issued his statements, both written and spoken, during a meeting that included a reception to honor teachers and school board members as the district observed Teacher Appreciation Week and School Board Recognition Month. Spears praised “the herculean efforts of teachers and school board members,” and said they further the ideals and principals of a democratic society.

“As a country, our way of life, our exercising liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is dependent on the success of public education which is only successful through the dedication and efforts of educators and board members,” he said.

Spears attached documents exploring the changes in funding for public schools as well as a pair of newspaper columns about shifting tides of support for education.

An ‘onslaught’

“The three attachments speak loudly regarding the onslaught that has been used to attack public education in order to justify diverting adequate funding to meet the needs of students to either fund tax cuts or fund spending priorities of individual legislators,” he said. “Every election cycle, we are promised that education is a high priority but when our elected officials get behind closed doors, other priorities seem to be placed ahead of education.

“The most recent legislative session in Iowa resulted in a 1 percent increase in the supplemental state aid impacting the state’s per pupil cost,” Spears said. “They seriously discussed eliminating the commercial/industrial tax cut backfill to school districts and local governments. Ultimately, the legislation failed to pass, but with a vow to reconsider next year.

“The Legislature did move forward with a phased-in $2 billion tax cut saying that we were able to keep all of our spending promises and still pass that tax cut I do have to take exception with the ‘keeping spending promises’ however,” he wrote. “School district budgets are not fully funded based on past promises. Technology funding eliminated. Phase I funding eliminated. Phase II funding eliminated. Phase III funding eliminated. State aid portion of the instructional support levy eliminated.

“Lack of student per pupil cost equity across the state. Lack of transportation cost equity across the state. Suppression of supplemental state aid which increases local property taxes for district with declining enrollment. Lack of funding for the Iowa Department of Education and area education agencies.”

Spears said he could list other examples but he was limited by time.

“When you take all this into consideration, part of the problem is the lack of financial resources to be able to serve children, the other part is that schools have fewer resources and the requirements and expectations to do more just continues to increase.

“Iowa needs to decide, as does our country, just where is it that we want to be with regards to serving our children?” he asked. “Is our democracy dead or is it something still worth fighting for? If it is, the army that will win that war will be a well-funded public education system that addresses the social, mental, emotional and academic needs of all our children so that they become productive citizens with the skills and attitudes necessary to become economically sufficient and successful at a post-secondary endeavor.”

Board members made no comments after Spears’ presentation, but after the meeting, board president Kecia Hickman said she shared his concerns.

She said lawmakers are having a negative impact on public education and are not assisting educators and school boards engaged in hard work on behalf of students and the community.

“I’m very concerned where we’re going to end up in a few years,” Hickman said.

JOIN THE MOVEMENT #iBELIEVE