Parents and Staff Tear Into Pekin School Board

Casey Jarmes
The News-Review

PACKWOOD – The ongoing implosion at Pekin continued on April 8 as dozens of parents and teachers crammed into the library to voice their displeasure during the monthly school board meeting. The public dissatisfaction began to swell on March 25, when the Pekin School Board accepted a letter of resignation from Superintendent Derek Philips. In the past 15 years, the district has gone through seven superintendents and ten secondary principals. Philips has been placed on administrative leave for the rest of the school year. For the time being, his duties will be handled by Great Prairie AEA Interim Regional Director and Pekin graduate Jeff Maeder.

Shortly after Philips left, letters of resignation were turned in by Elementary Principal Jenny Bell, HR Director Missy Sellers, and Elementary Teacher Sarah Wright. Bell and Sellers did not respond to requests for comment.  Two days after the Pekin School Board accepted Philips’s resignation, the Oskaloosa School Board, who had sharing agreements for their board secretary and operations management and transportation, management services with Pekin, announced they were cutting ties with Pekin, claiming that the district did not share their values. Multiple staff members have claimed that a lawyer was brought to the school to question students.

Philips’s sudden departure, alleged by some teachers to have stemmed from “irreconcilable differences” with the school board, inspired parents and teachers to bring up years-old issues they have with how the district is run. At the start of the Monday meeting, members of the public were given the opportunity to speak for no more than three minutes about their concerns. Sixteen different people made public comments to the board.

The first speaker, a parent of Pekin students, brought up a survey sent to Pekin staff by the Facebook group Pride in Pekin, which staff members were able to answer anonymously without losing jobs. The attendee stated that many of the parents there were afraid to stand up, due to potential retaliation from staff and coaches. The attendee began to read off some of the comments received from teachers, but was cut short by the time limit. A second parent walked up and began to read the comments. She too ran out of time. A third parent walked up to continue reading comments, followed by a fourth and a fifth. It took six different attendees to get through the worst of the comments. The sixth speaker ended her time speaking by accusing board members of violating the board’s code of ethics, which forbid using the district for personal advantage, discussing confidential business of the board outside of meetings, favoring specific patrons or groups, attempting to run the district themselves, working over administrators, and interfering or undermining the superintendent’s power.

“In the public’s view, the school board should be held to a high standard of ethics,” said the attendee. “To be a positive and trusted role model for the students. If you don’t start holding each other accountable for these actions, it’s time for the community to step in and hold you accountable. If you feel like you cannot make the changes so badly needed right now, then you need to resign and allow someone to step in that can make the changes happen.”

Pekin Kindergarten Teacher Brittany Holthus stated that a hateful and untrue rumor about her had been spread by staff, students, and the school board. One parent in attendance brought up the high turnover and asked about the overturning of a suspension alleged to have been the source of Philips’s falling out with the board. A parent stated it was heartbreaking to hear about Philips’s resignation, because Philips had been kind to his daughter.

Instructional Coach Johannah Neff stated that she had spoken to the board about her frustrations over admin turnover two years ago and that she felt like they were rehashing the same topics. She stated that herself and other teachers felt unheard and were frequently made to feel they were of no value, compared to teachers with more experience. “It shouldn’t be about years of experience or being from here, a good idea is a good idea,” said Neff. “Doing what’s best for kids is what matters the most.” Neff stated that Pekin should be a place where everyone is respected and valued.

Katie Keith, a parent who has on multiple occasions spoken out publicly about an incident where a racial slur was allegedly said to her daughter, stated that she reached out to the board immediately about changing the racism Pekin students face, which was left unresponded to.“I recently read some comments that the good thing about Iowa is that you can move your kid (to a different school) if you don’t like it…Last week, I had to submit open enrollment papers to move my 14-year-old daughter to Fairfield High School because she’s scared to continue here,” said Keith. “I have heard numerous stories over the years of students of color, LGBTQ students, and underprivileged students who have suffered with bullying and silence because Pekin is not safe. As a mental health professional, I can only tell you how devastating bullying is, especially when my child attempted suicde here and I followed her in the ambulance. Thank goodness that she’s alive and that her death was not the reason that Pekin was in the news. The culture of this school has to change. I’m leaving my Kindergarten son here, in hopes that things can turn around. And I could provide you with statistics for black boys in school and the disproportionate treatment they receive, and I am scared for him. The teachers at Pekin are wonderful. They have been a safe haven for my kids through the years, and I can only ask you that you have to do something to change this. It starts with your kids, it starts with you. You set the culture here. And I’ve seen some laughs. We’ve had the board president on, chuckling earlier. This is not funny! These are kids’ lives at stake! I am glad that I did not bury another one of my children.”

“I need the community to know that I don’t feel valued, being here,” said Instructional Coach Cassidy Steinhart, crying. “And I’m a (air quotes) transplant. I’m not from here. I’ve been here seven years, and every year, I have had someone in the building, not the board but someone in the building, question my years of experience, question why I’m talking to them about research-based practices, call me a ‘miniature admin’ when I have no desire to be so, and I don’t even live in the district! I drive here, as many people do. And I wanted Pekin to be my forever. I fell in love, I’m married to somebody here, I wanted Pekin to be forever and I’m seriously questioning whether I am insane or not. Insanity is repeating the same things over and over. And I am trying to be positive, I do the announcements every morning with a smile on my face, and a heart and love for every student here. Every student. And I’m questioning whether my reality is really happening. Is this seriously happening to me right now? For the past two weeks, I have prayed on my knees, crying, to understand what is happening. I don’t know a majority of the people here, but what I do know is almost every single one of the names of all of your children, K-12. 600 some kids, and I love this job, and I hope you board members do not question that job for me, because I love my job, but I cannot keep doing this, because that is insane. And I don’t think I’m insane, but I’m just not sure anymore. I just need everyone to know that this is reality and these are real situations! And I’ve been one of those people! You can’t brush this stuff under the rug! Mental health is important!”

Art Teacher Matt Guise stated that he loved his job and the people he worked with and that Pekin’s administration are wonderful people. He stated it hurt to see Pekin go through so many administrators and see great superintendents be kicked out the door.

One attendee read off a letter from the father of mixed-race children who graduated from Pekin. The father stated that his children never felt alienated, never experienced racism, and on the contrary were embraced by and fell in love with the community.

The husband of Business Teacher Katie Jacobs stated that there are two types of islands, islands you are stranded on and islands you can’t wait to get to, and that it was up to the board to decide which type Pekin would be. He stated that teachers who do not live in the district do not have to be at Pekin and, if continued to be pushed away, won’t be there for long. He stated that the board had overstepped and abused their power. He stated that he had talked to former school board members, who never talked to teachers or coaches because it wasn’t their job. “There’s two types of employers,” said Jacobs. “Ones people want to work for, and the ones people have to work for until they can find another job. And right now, it seems as, our administration, they work here until they can find something else or get out, because they don’t want to stay here. And I’m not blaming them for that decision.”

Instructional Coach Alissa Boatman stated that she had been at Pekin for eleven years and that last year was the first time she ever seriously considered leaving. She stated that her reputation had been drug down in the community by someone at the meeting who overstepped the chain of command.

After the public comments were done, the board continued on to their normal meeting. At the end of the meeting, Interim Superintendent Jeff Maeder spoke to the community. “I see quite a few familiar faces here tonight. I don’t want this to come off wrong, but I wish it were for different reasons or different circumstances…We’ve got some work to do,” said Maeder. “There’s no question about that. When I was asked to fill in here, I didn’t really give it any second thought. I heard some rumors and whatever, and it’s disheartening to hear that, growing up here. I’m not here to pretend to be the answer to any of this, but I want you to know that, while I am here, I’m going to work hard to do what I can do to get us headed in the right direction. Maybe a couple things that we can start with and get moving in that direction...I plan and look forward to having continued conversations with staff and getting out and talking to a lot of our community people too. I’m not really interested in hearing about the stuff that’s been happening in the past, necessarily. I just want to talk about what we can do to move forward and kind of have some solution-focused conversations with you...Morale is something that’s kinda hard to put a finger on addressing that, but it isn’t something you address once and it’s fixed or you fix once and it stays fixed. It’s something I think you have to continue to work on. that’s on my mind, as for what to do here and lead here. I think again, not looking for rose-colored glasses, but we need to be reminded of all the positive things that are going on. We heard some of those things tonight, in certain ways, and there’s a lot of good reasons to be here, to have your kids here, to work here, and I’ve seen some really good things. And, again, being the new person, a lot of people have been wanting to be really friendly and trying to look for the positives…I think it’s important, going forward, that we’re all solution-focused, that we value all ideas, we take what we heard tonight, and we think about that. and how that can make us better.




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