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Grinnell-Newburg School Board candidates on mask mandates, Critical Race Theory and their five-year-plans for the district

Incumbent candidate Barbara Brown poses with her yard sign. Photo contributed by Barbara Brown.

Candidates for the Grinnell-Newburg School Board (GNSD) clashed over mask mandates, CDC guidelines and culturally responsive curricula at a town hall hosted by the Grinnell League of Women Voters on Thursday, Oct. 28.

The seven-member board has two at-large director positions up for re-election this year. Incumbents Barbara Brown and Meg Jones Bair hold the seats currently and are running for re-election against challengers Roger Belsher and Chris Starrett.

Helen Redmond, director of District 2, and Laurel Tuggle Lucina, director of District 1, are also up for re-election and attended the town hall on Oct. 28. Redmond is challenged by Tyler Harter, who did not attend. Tuggle Lucina is running unopposed.

The four incumbent candidates advocated for adherence to CDC guidelines, for GNSD, which includes indoor masking for the unvaccinated and indoor masking for vaccinated living in high transmission regions. The CDC lists Poweshiek County as a high transmission area for COVID-19 and recommends everyone age two or older wear a mask indoors.

Starrett and Belsher, the two challenging candidates said they do not support the GNSD following CDC guidance.

Starrett said that he thinks GNSD should follow only Iowa guidelines, rather than the CDC because he thinks the CDC creates broader recommendations that cannot be applied universally to each school district. Belsher said that he thinks masks should be optional, citing complaints from students and staff about complications caused by the mandate. He did not explain what these complaints were.

The sitting school board unanimously passed the GNSD-wide mask mandate on Sept. 16, 2021.

Candidates were also asked about their support for Grinnell High School’s Culturally Responsive Scorecard used in their social studies curriculum. In March 2021, the GNSD adapted the Culturally Responsive Scorecard from New York University to expand equity and diversity in Grinnell High School’s curriculum.

Starrett positioned himself as being strongly against the scorecards, which he said were calling CRT by any other name. He gave an example of a disbanded auto-repair company changing names, but still being the same repair company.

“Critical Race Theory” is a formal name for an educational framework in which educators teach United States history in a way that includes the nation’s systemic racism in past and present times. The framework (specifically when known as CRT) has recently become a hot-button issue for the political right, although the content and ideas behind it have existed since the 1970s. Progressives have called the recent trend of Republican opposition to CRT-based curriculum racist and regressive.

“Do I believe in CRT? I think it’s wrong, I think it needs to be out of our schools,” Starrett said. “But I do believe in history, and in history prevailing, so we don’t keep repeating our mistakes.”

Meanwhile, Jones Bair cited feedback from Grinnell High School alumni that they weren’t prepared by their GNSD education to live in more diverse areas of the world as the impetus for implementing the Culturally Responsive Curriculum.

Candidates also discussed solutions to fix the infrastructure of school buildings in Grinnell. A $60 million bond initiative has been subject to vote three times since 2015. The money would be diverted towards fixing infrastructural decay and building a new elementary school, which would merge Grinnell’s three elementary schools into one building. Each ballot initiative failed.

All candidates said they supported the bond initiative. Some candidates also said that the infrastructure is causing low levels of enrollment at GNSD.

“We’ve got a lot of kids who are open-enrolled and going to other school districts at our time. That is a problem,” added Starrett.

Both Brown and Jones Bair said increasing enrollment and constructing a new elementary school were one of their top priorities. Brown added that the bond measure will be put to ballot again, with no date yet determined.

Other issues discussed at the forum were improvements in communication, school board management, budgeting, and each candidate’s five-year-plan for GNSD. A full recording can be viewed on the Grinnell LWV Facebook page.

School board races will appear alongside citywide races on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

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Nina Baker
Nina Baker, Staff Writer
Nina Baker is a fourth-year Russian major with a Russian, Central European and Eurasian Studies concentration from Lakeville, Minnesota. When she's not reporting for The Scarlet & Black, she loves taking long walks, reading, and learning foreign languages.
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