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School board considers dropping IASB membership

By Alecia Brooks
Solon Economist
SOLON– The Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) sent membership dues requests and a letter to school boards asking each district to name up to five goals that will be critical to school districts and taxpayers in preparation for the 2011-2012 school year.
The goals should be returned on a form, which has background information.
Helping to close the information is a sentence that reads, “The grassroots IASB legislative process involves all school districts in Iowa.”
While the sentence may express solidarity, it’s become inaccurate since three districts, Dubuque, Linn-Mar and Lewis Central of Council Bluffs, have decided mistrust and misconduct within the association means they won’t renew memberships.
Solon may be district four, as it decided to delay membership renewal until the board receives a response to its letter, which will express the board’s displeasure with the organization.
The Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) is a statewide organization that provides practical services to Solon Community School District: insurance with logistical and advocacy support included. However, several actions have led to the board’s disapproval.
Troubles began in 2010 when the Des Moines Register alleged that former Board President Maxine Kilcrease gave herself a pay raise without board approval. Other allegations include misuse of public money. The most recent strike occurred May 12, when association officials fired President-Elect Lee Ann Grimley without any public discussion. Grimley reportedly called for increased accountability, transparency and said the board backed a bill that would unnecessarily cost taxpayers extra money.
President Russ Wiesley sent an email about the decision. Wiesley said he and the board “diligently tried to resolve specific issues” and “areas of conflict” to avoid termination.
However, at a meeting last Monday, Solon School Board Member Tim Brown said Wiesley’s explanations were inadequate. “The challenge for me is that one of the members of IASB seems to not fully understand his position with districts,” Brown said. “It’s difficult to belong to an organization that teaches us how to do things but says, ‘don’t pay attention to how we’re doing it.’”
So, during its July 12 meeting, board members unanimously voted to table involvement and membership renewal until it sends a letter to the association’s executive director.
The letter will express approval of the decision to hire a new executive director. The letter will also communicate that the board is not happy with the group’s previous actions, which have led to lacking confidence and demand that the association act systematically.
“It’s not a legislature priority, but the most important thing they can do is get their butts in order,” said Board Member Dick Schwab. “Until that’s done, they have very little voice.”
Though justified, leaving the group means abandoning one of the largest financial perks: an insurance dividend.
Superintendent Sam Miller said insurance is provided through a partnership with IASB, and refunds are given to school districts in years when no significant expenses occur.
“Even though one school district may experience catastrophic losses, chances are 360 school districts are not,” Miller said.
Solon’s dividend checks average over $14,000 per year.
“Politics aside, from a financial basis it’s really difficult to not participate in IASB,” Miller stated.
If the Solon School Board decides to renew its membership, it will pay about $3,400 in dues. The fee is determined by the school district’s size, with smaller areas paying less money.
To ease mistrust and misconduct concerns, Miller reminded the board of Thomas Downs, the association’s new executive director who, according to Miller, has an “outstanding reputation.
“He knows he has a lot of work to do to repair the damage that has been done the last couple of years,” Miller said. “I’m hopeful that he can restore IASB.”
In a telephone interview, Downs said he’s been executive director for four days, but his agenda has been packed with speaking to school board members to retain participants, and news media to begin renewing the group’s image.
Downs encouraged continued membership. “There are strength in numbers and obviously more members means more money for the insurance pool and more money can be borrowed,” he said.
Board President Dave Asprey acknowledged the polarized sides. “There are two camps; one is, we don’t have confidence and trust in the organization– find the services elsewhere– while the other camp would argue that potentially the best way to affect change and still have a voice is to belong to an organization.”
Asprey clarified the full meaning of the second choice. He said choosing to stay doesn’t imply that the board won’t actively voice its concerns or directly communicate the need for certain actions, but it does allow continued access to services.
The board plans to pass a membership decision during its August meeting. It will look for less expensive insurance to offset the dividend loss if participation is ended.