Candidates talk sexual misconduct, masks at school board forum
Four candidates made their voices heard at a public forum on Tuesday night as they compete for open school board seats in the upcoming election.
The Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce and the Times-Republican sponsored the event at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Candidates weighed in on local educational issues including sexual misconduct, COVID-19 mitigation efforts and open enrollment.
Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce President John Hall and Times-Republican Managing Editor Robert Maharry, the co-moderators of the forum, asked a mix of their own prepared questions and others texted in from the audience. Candidates Karina Hernandez and Melissa Nine did not attend.
On COVID-19, candidates were asked about the school district’s policy of requiring masks in grades six and below.
Candidate Leah Stanley said she supported the district’s decision, noting that most children in those classes have not had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
“I believe that masks and vaccines are enablers to allow us to kind of get back to a normal life,” she said.
Candidate Zachary Wahl also said the ultimate goal is to achieve normalcy, but he advocated for parental choice.
“I will adhere to the prior board’s decisions on the facemasks, but I will do whatever I can in the near future when vaccines become available to make it a parental choice,” Wahl said.
Candidate Bonnie Lowry, who currently serves on the school board and voted against the mask mandate, stood behind her decision. She said that all of the emails she received regarding mask mandates expressed opposition to such a policy.
Candidate Rebecca Kouang said that she believes masks are a parental choice.
“I believe the less mandates we have in this country, the better,” Kouang said. “I want to believe parents know what is best for their children.”
After three sexual misconduct allegations against school district employees in the past year, candidates were asked what they would do to prevent future incidents.
Wahl suggested a safeguard in the form of a child protective team made up of community members, counselors, teachers, principals and parents.
“We have to have an open forum where kids feel safe. They can talk to peers, they can talk to parents. They can talk to staff and feel safe about their problems,” Wahl said.
Lowry agreed with Wahl and advocated for further transparency and defined reporting protocols.
“It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but what we need to have are protocols that are in place that folks understand how that reporting can be organized, so it’s made comfortable for the student who has an allegation to share,” Lowry said.
Kouang said the focus should be placed on teaching children to self advocate.
“I think that there is open communication right now, where this abuse was reported fairly quickly, and the perpetrators were caught,” she said. “This is going to happen, unfortunately not just in the Marshalltown school district, but in other places. I think how the district has handled that is good. There’s always room for improvement, and I’m going to keep striving to do the best we can to protect the children. Student safety is my number one goal.”
Stanley said it’s important for students and parents to feel comfortable and have someone they can trust with information.
“So, (we need to be) making sure that process is very well defined, that those students do have someone they trust at school, and that the person knows what to do with that information,” Stanley said.
On keeping students from open enrolling to surrounding districts, candidates said they feel Marshalltown could do more to share what it has to offer.
Lowry suggested marketing to preschools and communicating with parents earlier on before they make a decision on where to send their kids to school.
Kouang proposed a center to help parents with registration that would showcase the district’s extracurricular activities and educational programming.
Stanley said she is passionate about the issue and hopes to see a Marshalltown where people want to send their children to the local school district with plenty of advancement opportunities for students.
Wahl identified open enrollment as the biggest reason he is running. He said the district has done a wonderful job so far at combating the trend with the Marshalltown Virtual Academy bringing in students from outside school districts.
“The best thing that ever happened to our family is we came to Marshalltown schools,” Wahl said. “We’re investing into this town, and we’re invested in this community.”
During closing statements, the candidates had a final chance to make the case for their campaigns.
Lowry pointed to her 44 years of experience working in education.
“I feel like I am very familiar with the educational process,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with children from three years old through college seniors.”
Kouang said that as the owner of Dandy-Lion Early Childhood Learning Place in Marshalltown, she has a passion for working with and advocating for children.
“I have experience with educating children. I prepare them to come to the Marshalltown school district. I work with families now and introduce them to the Marshalltown school district,” Kouang said. “I have experience running a business. I’ve been a successful business owner in Marshalltown for 22 years. I’ve learned how to budget, to make wise decisions, to prioritize where the money’s going to go, but my decisions are always based on putting the children first.”
Stanley said that she wanted to serve on the school board to serve her community.
“I knew that when I didn’t go into education myself, this was something I wanted to do, so this has been something that has been building for me for a long time,” Stanley said.
Wahl pointed to his background as a financial advisor.
“We’ve got to move the vision forward at a faster rate and plan accordingly,” Wahl said. “We can’t keep just talking. We’ve got to act now.”
Four school board seats are up for election with a total of six candidates on the ballot. Hernandez is the lone incumbent seeking re-election, and Lowry seeks to serve the remaining two years of her term after she was appointed to fill a vacancy left by former school board member Niko Aguirre after his resignation.
Nine is running to fill the two-year term against Lowry. Hernandez, Kouang, Stanley and Wahl are competing for a full four-year term with three seats up for election. Incumbents Mike Miller and Bea Niblock, the current school board president, both opted to not seek re-election. Voting for the school board elections begins Nov. 2 with polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
A city council and mayoral candidate forum is set for Thursday night at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Contact Trevor Babcock at 641-753-6611 or