Mental health, school staffing take center stage at legislative dinner
LE GRAND — In summarizing Wednesday night’s dinner and discussion with three local legislators, East Marshall Superintendent Tony Ryan described it as the ultimate example of “Iowa Nice” — civil discourse on substantive issues with an eye toward productive solutions.
The event, which was held in the cafeteria of East Marshall High School, brought administrators and school board members from East Marshall, GMG, Grinnell-Newburg, Marshalltown and South Tama together along with state representatives Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown) and Dean Fisher (R-Montour) and State Sen. Jeff Edler (R-State Center).
In introducing the legislators, Ryan commended them for their continued commitment to an open line of communication.
“The thing that I’ve experienced, especially with the three of you, is that you’re always willing to take phone calls, and I appreciate that as a school representative,” Ryan said. “You’re always willing to listen. We may have different viewpoints, but you’ve never hung up on me yet.”
After the dinner, each legislator introduced him or herself briefly before opening the floor to general questions from those in attendance. Edler highlighted his background as a farmer and his own personal connection to education, both through his wife’s position as the business manager for the West Marshall school district and their six children. Mental health has become a focus of his, Edler said, because of a promise he made to a law enforcement officer to address the issue.
Fisher described the journey that led him back to the area where he grew up after almost 30 years living out of state and working in the electronic engineering industry. He is now semi-retired and farms part time, and he was first elected to the State House in 2012. Cahill, a lifelong teacher who still works in the Marshalltown Community School District, stressed her passion for education and her deep ties to her hometown, where she still resides. She was first elected to the House in 2020.
Ryan opened the question and answer portion of the night by asking what could be done to increase mental health services for students, and Cahill responded that from her own perspective working at the MCSD, she’s seen a major increase in kids on behavioral Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) — many of whom have experienced serious trauma in their homes. Edler also indicated support for an increase in services and new legislation to provide for them.
“The complexity in dealing with this realm is unbelievable,” he said. “What we’re doing right now is putting Band-Aids on the problems. We have got to get to the root cause because (even with) everything we’ve been doing over the last 15 years, we’re still increasing the number of kids with high acuity mental illness and behavior problems. We’ve got to go back and look at how we’re doing things and see what’s working (and) what’s not.”
Subsequent questions focused on teacher well-being and telehealth options for both students and staff. That discussion gradually segued into a broader conversation on what districts can do to attract teachers, both full-time and substitute, and support staff as widespread workforce shortages continue across the country.
“We’re asking (teachers) to do so much more than we were even two years ago,” Grinnell-Newburg School Board President Stephen Sieck said.
Cahill recalled a conversation she had with MCSD Superintendent Theron Schutte, who was also in attendance on Wednesday, about how to make life easier for teachers dealing with unprecedented stress levels as a result of staffing shortages.
“What can we take off of the plates? Because the plates are so full, the buffet line has been gone through, and those plates are so full. We’ve got to take some things off,” Cahill said.
She also suggested equalizing substitute teacher pay to prevent larger suburban districts from luring candidates away with substantially higher daily wages. East Marshall School Board member Elizabeth Crandon, who works in Ankeny, worried about a “great divide” between rural and suburban districts and wondered what could be done to change it, especially as smaller districts are forced to impose surtaxes to compensate for the lack of property tax revenues and state funding larger districts receive.
South Tama County Superintendent Jared Smith called on the state legislature to loosen certification and Praxis test requirements for teachers and allow administrators to determine which educators are best suited for the jobs they need to fill.
“I can guarantee you (that) if they’re not good, we’ll get them out of there,” Smith said.
Cahill said Iowa should focus on “growing its own” and becoming a catalyst in providing incentives for teachers to choose smaller districts outside of the state’s main metropolitan areas.
Schutte expressed concern about funds from the Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) program, which he supports, coming at the expense of general fund increases through Supplemental State Aid (SSA). He also noted that wage increases at stores like Wal-Mart and Kwik Star, where new employees are now starting at up to $14 and $15 an hour, have made hiring even more difficult for school districts.
“The job… has become extraordinarily more challenging because of the challenges our kids and families face, and yet, we’re not paying that much more,” Schutte said. “Something’s not right about that picture.”
Cahill responded that she agreed “100 percent” with Schutte’s assessment.
Before wrapping up the event, Ryan thanked the legislators for their efforts to provide transportation equity at rural districts that cover larger land areas, and Cahill, Edler and Fisher encouraged those in attendance to keep an open line of communication going forward.
Contact Robert Maharry at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or