Editor’s Note: This is the second of three candidate previews for the Fort Madison Community School Board election on Nov. 2. A third will focus on the two incumbents Brian Steffensmeier and Brad Menke.
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – With the in-person early voting now underway in Lee County for the general Iowa city/school election on Nov. 2, the race for three hotly contested seats on the Fort Madison School Board is in full swing.
The race between incumbents Brian Steffensmeier and Brad Menke, and new comers Jadi Zioui, Paul Wilkerson, Mio Santiago, David Allen, and Alleena Garr is one of the very few races in North Lee County with an abundance of candidates.
Allen and Garr were featured in an earlier preview, while Zioui, Wilkerson, and Santiago will be the focus of this preview. Menke and Steffensmeier will be a separate article.
Jadi Zioui has a lengthy background in Fort Madison and has raised children here. She has been involved in local events including organizing a Haunted Old Fort and has been in several Old Fort Players productions. She was also part owner of several businesses downtown including the Parthenon before it was sold and closed down.
She said she’s had an interest in politics since she covered the Iowa caucuses for Google.
“I had the pleasure at that time of interviewing former State Sen. Gene Fraise and his advice to me was get on a board,” Zioui said. “This has really been random, but Erin sent out an email to parents saying there was openings on the board.
With her diverse backgrounds Zioui said she feels serving on the board is something she could do. Her children Juniper, Rosie, and Wesley, are either going through, or have gone through, the Fort Madison School system and that’s opened her eyes to operations and the education process.
“When I told my friends I was running they were excited because they know I will ask questions. That’s what I do. I play devil’s advocate and ask questions that might hurt, but will help eventually by poking holes in things,” she said.
“I’m not looking to revamp the system, but I do want to ask the questions.”
She said one of the things she wants to help find a resolution to is the traffic flow at the junior high and high school with plans in place to move all the district kids to those campuses.
“That pick-up drop off at the middle school is absolutely insane. I’ve got one in high school and none of my kids drive until they’re 18. You can call me a psychopath but it’s worked out for me so far. It’s like McDonald’s, or Burger King, or the post offices, they are the same wherever you go – pretty much the same circle drives and that makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense here,” Zioui said.
Zioui said other than that she’s been impressed with the district and it’s one of the reasons she didn’t move away.
“I would love being a part of that, making sure that it continues to do well. Certain things need to be tweaked. And I think what would help the district would be if they could be more transparent.,” she said.
She pointed to the confusion people have with different funding sources in the school district budget and how certain things garner attention while others seem to not get any attention.
“The best thing we can do as parents is be involved and join some of the booster clubs to help. If more things were explained better maybe more people would do that,” she said.
The school district has an enhanced website with daily updates on what’s going on in the schools, but Zioui said not everyone has the equipment, time, or patience to go through the website. Another issue she said she hears complaints about is Wednesday scheduling.
“Wednesday are making people crazy. It used to be just an early out, but this we don’t even know what’s going on. I would love to help by making suggestions with communication.”
Fort Madison resident Paul Wilkerson has spent all but about seven years of his life in the education system. From the time he entered kindergarten, Wilkerson has been inside school district walls. He did a two-year stint in the sales industry before realizing his real passion was in education.
Wilkerson is a career educator and administrator with time in the Winfield-Mt. Union education system, and has also served as a teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic and on the HTC board of directors.
He was the athletic director during a heavy time of shared programming between Winfield-Mt. Union and Morning Sun.
“I’m a Fort Madison boy, went here from K-12th grade, graduated in 1967. Then went to Iowa Wesleyan College and started teaching in 1972 in Alburnette near Cedar Rapids,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve been a teacher, a coach, an administrator, a counselor, and I’ve worked with curriculum and sat on the school board of HTC,” he said.
“I’ve dedicated 65 years of my life to education.”
He said more than six decades inside the halls of Iowa schools has not dimmed his fire for education.
“You think you’re tired of it until you get out of it and then you miss all that interaction and challenges. I’ve retired 3 times,” he chuckled.
Wilkerson was Activities Director at Winfield-Mt. Union during the Wolves’ heyday when the school district was part of four state titles – two in girls basketball; one, and a runner-up, in boys basketball, and a 1993 state championship in wrestling with Wapello.
He said as a coach and administrator in that district he got a close look at internal budgets and state budgets. He was also on the budget committee at Holy Trinity Catholic.
“Even though it’s not a state budget there were some similarities at HTC,” he said. “We had to work a lot on the budget to keep tuition down. In state budgets, students are weighted depending on the services the district needs to provide. Open enrollment is a boon in some areas and has left some high and dry. Look at the exodus at Burlington, it’s been devastating. But for Danville, West Burlington, and Central Lee it’s had the opposite effect.”
Wilkerson said he’s also been involved in two campaigns to build new schools. One was a private effort at HTC and another was a public effort. He said those two campaigns contrasted in the processes, but the goals were the same.
“In a small town, and I don’t consider Fort Madison a small town, people are more goal-oriented toward the school district. Some of your more rural ag communities point to new schools and say, ‘We did that’. But here you have a transient population and you may not have that same sense of pride,” Wilkerson said.
“As a board member, you have to put your ego and opinions aside and listen to staff and administration, but also to students and non-certified staff.
“Even the students, you have to listen to them. They have to occupy these buildings and use the technology there. My job would be to serve as a bridge between everybody in the district and those who sit at the table,” Wilkerson said.
He said that includes custodians, food service, bus drivers, and other non-certified staff.
“Those are the people I’ve always gravitated to. I want to represent those people, too, and bring their voices forward,” he said.
“Think about it, the first person a lot of our kids see in the morning is the bus driver, and how that interaction goes sets the stage for that kid’s day.”
But he said the current board has done a great job considering all the pressures that have come to bear on them in the past two years.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes and knowing what I know, I think they are doing a good job,” he said.
Wilkerson said he sat with Slater and two other candidates at Hy-Vee in an orientation of sorts after they took out papers to run for office. He said Slater did a good job explaining the roles of the board, but he said if elected he would probably take in a lot for the first two meetings to get a feel for the board of directors.
Wilkerson also said he favored transparency where it’s effective.
“You can put out anything you want, but if people don’t understand the form it’s in, you’re not really being transparent. You need to do it on a regular basis and in a form that people can understand. I think that’s the right way to go,” Wilkerson said.
Mio Santiago grew up in Fort Madison and graduated from Fort Madison High School. He left in 1991 after graduation and did undergrad work at Marquette. Then he worked in Chicago for six years before going to law school in San Diego.
His plans after high school were to find the world and not return, but when it came time to start a family, Fort Madison is where he wanted to be, which was a surprise even to him.
“In 1991 I ran out of this town like my hair was on fire and was never coming back. But when my wife and I decided to get married, we were talking about where we were going to live and out of the blue came, “Well, what about Fort Madison” and I had to turn around and see who said it. Apparently it was me,” Santiago said.
The couple is raising three children and Santiago’s wife is a teacher in the middle school building.
“It’s been good being back, easy, and relatively safe.”
Santiago said the district was long overdue for the facility improvements scheduled to begin next year and for the elementary schools to be retired.
“My goodness those schools have been around forever. I support those changes and expansions and I’m excited to learn more about what’s going on if elected. And make sure the district’s vision and plan are being followed.”
Santiago is in private practice in Fort Madison and served a stint as an assistant Lee County Attorney for several years.
He said that career choice makes him uniquely qualified to ask specific questions and get to the root of issues that he’s unfamiliar with.
One of those needling questions is why Fort Madison suffers from open enrollment losses.
“I want to find out why. In a community of our size, the rumors and perceptions rule whether or not they are backed by fact. People say this school or that has a great academic reputation and I want to find out what’s making them think that. What makes them think that one school is better academically than Fort Madison. Let’s cut through to what the facts are,” he said.
Santiago said transparency is also a critical issue facing the district. He said most people don’t want to see “how the sausage is made”, but they can rely on their elected board to do that for them.
“One of the things I’m pushing for is to get there and ask tough questions. If it’s not as simple as 1 plus 1 equals 2, then they’re going to have to explain it to me. Education is not my expertise, so I want to come in asking tough questions and being transparent with the constituents of this community,” he said.
With the pressures facing the school district over the past two years, Santiago said he thinks the district has done a good job with some hard decisions.
“There are some decisions they’ve made that I haven’t agreed with. And there are some that I commend them for making. Those were hard decisions because they had to be done.”
But he said he wants to make sure that the teachers and students are being heard during and after the pandemic recedes.
“A lot is being put on everyone to help make up for these stressful, and hopefully once-in-a-lifetime, experiences. I want to make sure the board is checking and taking the temperature of students. Maybe that’s a bad analogy right now, but for our educators and administrators – how are you coping and what can we do better,” Santiago said.
He said he’d also like to see a more robust partnership with parents in school district to help them be more involved. His time prosecuting and defending clients gives him a unique skill set in that arena.
“I think I’m pretty good at understanding and taking complex situations and breaking them down into understandable points. And if they’re not understandable, to keep asking questions that make them understandable. Those questions aren’t always going to be easy. But we need to ask tough questions to make good decisions,” he said.
“My ability to communicate is fairly good and I can articulate my thoughts to bring about common ideas. I work well in consensus building if I’m needed. But I think one of my biggest strengths is a passion to be transparent and solicit input from the community. The last thing I want is to be a board member who makes decisions and then be damned if you disagree.”