Dan Barkel & Jason Loutsch: Avoiding the Fireworks
A Superintendent and Board President discuss how they keep board meetings productive and drama-free.
As we witness school board meetings across the country becoming hotbeds of controversy and political strife, it’s hard not to wonder if any district is immune. In the midst of national staff shortages and growing competition for enrollment, this kind of chaos can sully a school district’s reputation and trust within the community. And if it’s bad for your school brand, it’s bad for your students.
Now, maybe more than ever, it’s vital to build and maintain strong relationships with the members of your school board, especially the president or chair. For more insight on the matter, we turn to Iowa’s MMCRU Community Schools, which is actually two districts combined: Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn School District and Remsen-Union Community Schools.
Answering to two school boards, Superintendent Dan Barkel has learned firsthand about the value of trust and transparency with board presidents. To get a better sense of this crucial working dynamic—and to learn how to keep the peace at board meetings—we spoke with Barkel and Jason Loutsch, current president of the Remsen-Union school board. Loutsch, a full-time farmer, was elected to the position in 2019. Barkel has been superintendent of MMCRU since 2018.
Dan, why is a board president’s role in the operations of a district so important?
DB: Because I serve the school boards of two adjacent districts, when we have a board meeting, there are actually two boards meeting. We meet jointly because we all have a stake in all of our kids. So it’s really important that our boards work together and that both understand what’s going on in all our schools.
The work of our board presidents is key and really important in our situation. When I came here, I started having a board presidents’ meeting prior to our monthly board meeting. In these meetings, the three of us basically go through the agenda and discuss what we’ll be covering that month. As the superintendent, I try to provide a little background on any issues that may come up, and my board presidents help me get a feel for what the community is thinking. That insight is crucial for me at MMCRU, because we have two communities here, and they sometimes have differing viewpoints on certain issues. My board presidents really give me that context.
The board presidents also play a crucial role in helping me project a calm, peaceful image for our school board—one that shows we can work together to get things done. During the pandemic, it became really clear to me that in order to progress as a school system, we need to have board meetings that are as placid and productive as possible. It’s important that we try to keep fires burning low or put them out quickly. We can’t afford to be at odds with one another, because if we separate from each other, these districts will eventually get swallowed up by larger ones and cease to exist.
Fortunately, our board members really love our schools, and they want us to continue. They want us to thrive and prosper. But in order to ensure that, I have to have good leadership from the board presidents, leadership that moves our schools forward so that parents, students, and community members have a lot of trust in what we’re doing.
Jason, how do you view the relationship between the superintendent and school board?
JL: When I first joined the school board, I wasn’t planning on ever becoming president. That’s just how the cards fell. And it is a big change from just sitting on the board. Now I run the meetings, call the motions, keep things in order. And if any of my board members have concerns, which they all do from time to time, I’m responsible for bringing those to Dan. I also try to always let our board members know what’s going on. I don’t want them coming to our meetings surprised by a topic or issue that comes up.
As board president, I’m also the first person people call when they don’t like something—but that’s my job. The board is tasked with overseeing the district, and Dan is the one in charge of our day-to-day operations. So when there is a problem, that’s where I start. I go to the superintendent, and we talk about how to address it.
What is MMCRU’s approach to productive, drama-free board meetings?
JL: I think it reflects well on us and the job we’re doing that we don’t have any of those problems you see districts having on the news. Our administration stays on top of things, and we try not to give people a reason to complain. But I’ll also listen to anybody, whatever issue they may have. That doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re right, but I will listen to people when they come to me.
DB: We need to position ourselves with such a high level of trust and excellence that we attract people to our organization and to our schools. Parents need to feel good about our district and feel like there’s a lot of good things going on here, like their kids need to be part of that. So for me, this is a business motivation. The least we can do is keep our board meetings civil. A district not too far from us is having fireworks at their board meetings to the point where they’ve got people watching just to see what will happen. We don’t want that. We want to be as boring as paint drying on a wall. The business of school doesn’t need more bumps in the road than it already has. Avoiding the fireworks is key.
A lot of times you hear things like “the superintendent’s relationship with the board went sideways.” And I’m not saying that I haven’t had moments where I’ve maybe been “sideways” with some board members as well, because let’s face it: With all the issues we’re facing nowadays, there are going to be disagreements. Even though we’re in a small town, we don’t all have the same views on everything.
So first of all, we have to have respect for each other. And we have to show that we have our schools’ best interests at heart and not just our own self interests. We have to be genuine and work to engender trust. I know I’m not perfect. We’ve had some issues with trust here in the past, and you can’t fix those things overnight. You’re always going to have those things when you’re dealing with human beings. But your track record has to reflect that you can be a trustworthy person. You just need to be consistent, real, and honest.
Enrollment is a major issue for many districts. How are you working together to address declining student numbers?
DB: I spent most of my career in private schools, so I’m definitely sensitive to enrollment. I know how it affects funding and how important it is for us to maintain and grow our numbers. We’re small and rural, and we have private schools in one of our districts, so we’re scrapping and fighting for every student we can get. That’s another reason why we have to promote ourselves and our image, not only in terms of how we run our schools, but also in terms of how we run our board meetings. I once read somewhere that to be successful in business, you have to be aware of everything, so that’s how I am. We can’t afford to be at each other’s throats. If we are, then people will start walking away from our district, and we won’t be in business anymore.
There are also certain factors that are outside of our control. In a rural Iowa community like ours, declining enrollment in public schools is related to how farming works. New farming equipment and technology mean you need fewer and fewer people working on a farm than you used to—and that’s only going to continue to change with an increased use of artificial intelligence. That means fewer and fewer students in our schools.
So business and industry are key to growing communities like ours. That means we have to be aggressive in developing our towns to meet this change. We can’t count on farming to grow our enrollment anymore. We need to count on industries that support farming instead.
As a district, we work with economic development efforts in our communities to attract more businesses and industry to the area. We also have an incredible industrial technology program in our schools, and we use that to help drive industry in our community. Honestly, if we don’t grow industry, we’re not going to grow either.
JL: We have two big school districts to the east and west of us, so we have to grow our town if we want kids to stay. We need people wanting to move here. Getting businesses in our town is probably the best way to grow our enrollment.
I’ve lived in this town all my life, and I basically live on the same farm I grew up on. So I want to see it grow and thrive. A big part of this is creating jobs that will make our kids want to stay and raise families here. For years, we were all told in school that you need to go to a four-year college to be successful, but I think that mentality is changing, and we need it to change. As Dan mentioned, our districts have focused on industrial technology and teaching trades and skills that will hopefully help our kids get the kind of jobs that will keep them in our community.
How can superintendents and boards work together to run a successful bond campaign?
DB: The Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn district (MMC) passed a $20 million bond in March of 2021 to finance a new elementary school and an attached daycare facility. This will also fund a complete remodel of MMCRU’s high school. Superintendents and school boards are critical to getting projects like this off of the ground.
I helped by assessing our needs and envisioning what would be necessary to meet the goal of improving our facilities. Then the MMC board had to lend their support and approval to get the measure on the ballot in front of voters, as well as help garner public support for the bond proposal. Keep in mind that in the state of Iowa, a 60% supermajority is required to pass a school bond, and since it was a three-question proposal, a fair amount of campaigning had to take place in order to get it passed.
Fortunately, the school board at MMC is made up of five at-large members who all represent various social groups within the district’s population. Getting their support—and harnessing their personal contacts—was vital in forming a network of support to help get out the vote on Election Day, which made it possible for the measure to pass. We are very pleased that so much progress has been made on the building project, and we expect a total completion date in the spring of 2024. The future of the MMCRU Royals looks very bright.
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