Offer Your Thoughts on Schools

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," April 27, 1999, p. 13A

Have I ever asked a favor of you, dear reader?


Well, I’m about to. Actually, I think you’ll want to do it.

It’s no secret the Iowa City School Board’s looking for a new superintendent. It’s also no secret there were differences among board members about timing and the way we decided on search procedure.

That’s behind us. Majority rules. We move on.

What our search firm, the Bickert Group, is offering our community, could be extremely valuable. Among its services is a little noticed sleeper they call a “community audit.”

Even if they never find us a superintendent the audit alone may be well worth their fee.

What’s this “audit”?

It’s an opportunity for every person in this community to contribute to an impartial evaluation of the district’s “issues or concerns.” Individuals’ comments will be read by Bickert and included in its verbal and written reports presented at the public board meeting May 11th.

There are going to be numerous input meetings May 3rd that anyone can attend.

But that’s the least of it. Forms will be available around the community (at the schools, the library) that can be filled out and sent to Bickert. In fact, you don’t even need the form. I’ll give you the questions, and the addresses, below.

Meetings are confidential. No board members or administrators present. And the forms can be submitted anonymously. The board seems – genuinely and unanimously – to want as much public participation, and as candid a report, as possible.

Is it possible my idealism and naivete prevent my detecting a con? Sure. But I don’t think so. The Bickert Boys, John Cahill and John Hinck, seem like straight shooters. They come highly recommended. They are experienced and disciplined. Their reputation is on the line.

Besides, if you keep a copy of what you send them, or give me one, and it never shows up in the audit that’s going to be pretty obvious.

The audit form serves a number of purposes. In addition to (1) concerns, it  also asks you, (2) the district’s strengths, (3) the characteristics a superintendent needs to be successful, and (4) other information you would like the Board to consider.

Bickert has to inform candidates, with fulsome candor, exactly what they’re getting into. It does the community, and the candidate, no favors to cover up our “issues or concerns.” We needn’t fear the truth. Our strengths are sufficient to attract top candidates.

That’s only common sense.

But the added advantage Bickert offers is the opportunity at this time, since we’re doing it anyway, to present the board itself with a thorough and candid report card from the community.

Since joining the board I have received literally hundreds of e-mails, phone calls, and letters.

Some provide much welcome support and encouragement.

Others detail situations crying out for remedies.

They provide me some idea of our problems. But my sampling may not be very scientific.

That is why I am asking you to please take advantage of this opportunity.

Think through your experiences with the board and administration. Or what you’ve read in the papers and talked about with neighbors.

Students, parents, staff, citizens: here are some things I'd be interested in knowing.

When decisions affect you are you notified and listened to? Are you treated with the friendliness, respect and responsiveness you’d expect from a Wal-Mart clerk? Given rational reasons for decisions? Are we treating our special ed kids fairly – and legally?

Would you like to see more communication about long range planning, budgeting and goals from the board? Do you think it’s “micro-managing” things better left to a superintendent? Substantive decisions aside, is the board’s process satisfactory in resolving such issues as the alternative school, MARS, music?

Other board members may have other interests. But you get the idea. Tell us what your care about.

The audit won’t resolve specific grievances. It reports recurring themes. But better you submit something we can’t use than omit something we could.

Of course, I’m happy to hear from you directly, or with a copy of your form (Box 1876, Iowa City IA 52244; e-mail: But it’s far more important you tell Bickert.

And fast. Communications received before May 3rd can even help shape those meetings. On May 4th, Bickert will start reviewing your comments and forms and writing their audit report.

Will you do it? Today? For our kids? Our community? Yourself?

It’s a rare opportunity. Let’s not waste it.

The addresses: The Bickert Group, Box 89, Glen Ellyn IL 60138; fax (630) 858-3653; e-mail

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City School Board.