A three-year process to get the Davenport Community School District out of state control made some progress Thursday, as the district was approved for continued conditional state accreditation from the Iowa Board of Education.

State Education Director Ann Lebo and four members of the state Board of Education took tours of Buchanan Elementary and Davenport Central High School earlier in the day, and had a special meeting with the district board Thursday afternoon.

“A substantial amount of work has been done in the past year,” Lebo told the board. “Our goal to scale back now, to where the district is functioning more independently, with sort of that protective safety valve, to ensure that implementation stage now is a success.”

Ann Lebo is director of the Iowa Department of Education

All the initial required state supports have been removed, Lebo said. Now, what’s required is that the Davenport administrative team meets with the state education department quarterly and a school business official meet monthly with the department employee who oversees finance.

Davenport is no longer permitted to contract with a third party to assist with fiscal well-being, with the intention to ensure the district is able to oversee finances on its own.

“We have provided so much support to the district; we need to see they’re able to do it independently,” Lebo said. “We believe that they can.”

The state board will reconvene in March to make its next decision on the district. Lebo praised Superintendent TJ Schneckloth, the board and staff.

Davenport Superintendent TJ Schneckcloth speaking after Thursday’s meeting (photo by Jonathan Turner)

“TJ Schneckloth has been an outstanding representative for this district,” she said. “The goal for everyone in the room is for Davenport to be successful and for TJ to be successful. And we are very happy with him and his work, as I believe the district is as well.”

“The visit to Buchanan was awesome,” said Bettie Bolar, state board vice president. “I have not seen a phonics curriculum in place,” she said of sounding out words as a way to aid literacy. Bolar said the students were engaged and the teachers amazing.

“I hope it’s going as well in the other buildings as it seems to be going in Buchanan,” she said.

“Phonics is so important to reading. I thought it was so unbelievable they’ve only been doing it for a couple of months and the children seemed really engaged; they were very well-behaved,” said Brooke Axionis, state board president.

“The high school visit, that was just phenomenal,” she said of meeting with a youth leadership group. “They were really diverse in terms of where they come from, but they work together really well, collaborate and come to consensus. I think that’s great, because that reflects real life.”

Phonics is key, as well as a positive behavior intervention system, Schneckloth said after the meeting.

“What does it mean to be prepared for class, to have grit all throughout your life?” he asked. “When we say positive behavior intervention, it’s all throughout the schools in how we intervene for behavior and teach students and support them in the best way possible.”

“I think the biggest thing was the conditions for learning,” Hannah Groos of Norwalk, a high-school student member of the state board, said of Davenport Central. “Having that data gave them the ability and skills to communicate that to people like you – adults in the district and school board.”

Hannah Groos (left), a high-school senior member of the state Board of Education, and Department of Education director Ann Lebo at Thursday’s special meeting (photo by Jonathan Turner).

They are building a more trusting relationship between the students and school staff.

“The students who are part of that leadership team are amazing,” Groos said. “They’re absolutely amazing. Good job to the school district for helping them grow and become better leaders.”

“I know we saw a small slice of Davenport, but what I saw, I was impressed with,” state board member John Robbins said. He found the teachers to be very caring and dedicated, noting the students were committed and participating.

“I found not only the teachers and the staff, but students, to be very dedicated and the professionals in the office,” Robbins said. “I also found a level of heartfelt dedication to do the best for the kids. That’s something I think you should be very proud of.”

Davenport members still frustrated

The main recommendations the state had Thursday mirrored what was discussed at the last meeting in November 2021:

The Department Director maintains operational control of Davenport CSD in the following respects:

  • TJ Schneckloth remains appointed Superintendent and his work is directed by the Director;
  • The administrative team at Davenport CSD is required to meet quarterly with Shane Williams and a Department team chosen by the Director for the purpose of implementation of the corrective actions;
  • The Davenport School Business Official is required to meet monthly with Kassandra Cline;
  • The Department will conduct implementation checks to determine if the corrective action plan is being done with fidelity.
  • Davenport CSD no longer be required to contract with Gary Sinclair as a financial advisor.
  • Davenport CSD no longer be permitted to contract with a third party to assist the district in managing their fiscal well-being. It is essential that the district demonstrate the ability to be self-sufficient in this area.
  • Davenport CSD no longer be required to contract with MBAEA for leadership services.

School board member Karen Kline-Jerome said it’s very frustrating to work as hard as they have to have some rules changed on them and extending the current status.

School board members Karen Kline-Jerome, left, Kent Paustian, and Allison Beck at Thursday’s meeting (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I appreciate the fact you got a good impression of our district, because it is a really good district,” she said Thursday, noting she taught 32 years in the district. “I would put it up against anybody.”

The school board wants to have local control back, Kline-Jerome said.

“We were not here when they overspent,” she said, as a member of the finance committee. “We are never going to let this district get in that position again. I do feel punished, as someone who was not here when those decisions went on, for what I’ve had to do these last two years.

“I hope you take all that into consideration,” Kline-Jerome said. “We are busting our butts to do the right thing, but then we get to meeting, and we’re going to hold on to you three more months.”

“It does feel like we are doing so much more than we are getting credit for as a district,” said Allison Beck, school board member. “I hope that having visited today and hearing from us in person, helps you see that really – it’s not just what you see on paper. There’s so much more going on.”

“We do recognize the tremendous strides you have made,” Lebo said.

The state works from a lengthy matrix of points that must be completed by the district, which comes from both the district and state.

“I’m sorry you think the goals have changed,” Bolar of the state board said. “I’m not sure, from my perspective on the board, nothing has changed for the end goal.”

“You don’t turn a giant ship overnight – it takes a while,” she said. “You’re on the right course. I appreciate all that you have done.”

Axionis said the progress has been tremendous.

“What we’re looking for now is, we want to make sure it’s sustainable. We’re not trying to punish you.”

“We want to ensure that you guys will be successful,” and that the success will continue long-term, she said. “Our biggest fear is that if we pull away too quick, in five years, we’ll be back again, and nobody wants that.”

Before this, the school district (of over $200 million a year) never had a line-item budget, said Davenport board member Kent Paustian. “It was a mess. The overspending never should have happened. We had to address these.”

Kent Paustian speaking at the special meeting of the district school board (photo by Jonathan Turner).

He’s disappointed the state pulled away working with Gary Sinclair, who had served as a contracted chief financial advisor for the district.

“It never hurts to have that outside expertise to help you through some of this,” Paustian said. “Gary Sinclair was simply phenomenal and he was a very big help for our district.”

“I’m very frustrated we continue to have this hanging over us, and not have full accreditation,” he said, noting it’s affecting hiring of teachers. Candidates may look negatively on the status of conditional accreditation of the district when considering their job options, Paustian said.

“A teacher can pretty much go anywhere right now, there’s such a demand,” he said. “As a teacher prospect, are you gonna take a look at this district, or are you gonna look at another district? That hurts us in a way.”

“I’m hoping we’ll be full accreditation come March,” Paustian said. “I think the longer this goes on, it’s gonna make it harder for the district.”

“I truly appreciate the fact that you took the time, at 5 degrees (outside) to come to Davenport,” board member Bruce Potts said. “It’s very hard to assess and supervise long-distance.”

A former building principal, he said he couldn’t evaluate a teacher from his office.

“It’s very important that you came, and you saw, and you experienced what you came, saw and experienced,” Potts said. “That will enrich your ability to make recommendations in March.”

Board member Linda Hayes said there’s a time to let go, like when children learn to walk.

“Children let their hands go, and they’ll fall and get up, and take off running,” she said. “I think we’re at the point now where we’re coming to our feet and we need to go.”

What is next?

Davenport CSD was placed on conditional accreditation at the May 2019 State Board meeting. In September 2020, the State Board of Education voted to temporarily replace former Superintendent Robert Kobylski and the district’s interim Chief Financial Officer Lisa Crews.

The Department of Education said then it “made every effort over the past three years” to work with the district to address inequities in how minority students are disciplined, inadequate special education services and serious school safety concerns.

Schneckloth on Thursday told the state board members it meant the world to the district to have these meetings.

Superintendent TJ Schneckloth speaking after Thursday’s meeting (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“We’re headed in the right direction and we’re heading in that direction just as fast as we can go,” he said after the meeting. “All you heard from your state school board and director of education were that things were going well,” he said. The next big step is to implement their plans.

“We know what we’re doing and we’re headed in that direction,” Schneckloth said. “We are able to stand on our own feet and move forward as fast as we can.”