by Félix Pérez
The notion of running for a seat on Iowa’s largest school board was a bridge too far for Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley. After all, she reasoned, she had no experience in politics and she had to focus her energies on her students and completing her master’s degree.
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Well, that was in April. Fast forward to this Tuesday, when Shelley, propelled by a network of educators, parents, the labor community and local and state elected officials, won her race for an at-large seat on the seven-member Des Moines School Board.
“I knew I always wanted to do more, and that’s why I’m a teacher,” the middle school teacher librarian told Education Votes. “But running for the school board was another matter altogether.” Encouraged by her friends to run and motivated by the results of the 2016 presidential election and a state law passed last year stripping educators of their right to bargain collectively, Shelley overcame her doubts and jumped in. “I’ve learned that, like most educators, I could do more than I thought I could handle.”
Shelley, a third-generation educator, leaned on a volunteer campaign manager and treasurer to navigate the ins and outs of a new world. She and a band of energetic friends and allies, many of whom come from the ranks of New Leaders Council, a training program for progressive millennials, knocked on doors and made phone calls right until election day, using Shelley’s home as a makeshift campaign headquarters strewn with canvassing packets, campaign signs and phone number sheets. What her campaign lacked in money, it made up for in making smart use of voter data and targeted voter outreach in what is historically a low-turnout election.
In addition to her local supporters, Shelley also gives credit for her win to a training program launched by the National Education Association in June. She spent two days at the See Educators Run training with more than 30 educators from various states interested in running for local office. There they learned about messaging, fundraising, voter lists, policy resources and creating a campaign plan. Shelley is the first graduate of the program to run for office.
“We hit the ground running after See Educators Run,” said Shelley. She and the other graduates of the training program have created a Facebook page to share advice and encouragement. “It’s been very helpful to have access to all the resources the program provides.”
High school history teacher Michael Shaw met Shelley while they were organizing the city’s Women’s March this spring. During a break from door-knocking the evening before election day, Shaw spoke with Education Votes. “Kyrstin’s incredibly positive, passionate, energetic and able to get everyone to work together. Having her on the school board is important.”
Like Shelley, Shaw points to the current divisive nature of state and national politics and the attacks by politicians on educators as impetuses for greater educator involvement inside and outside the classroom and the school. “Being a teacher today is not easy, but we can’t just sit back. If anything, the last year or two have been a wake-up call.”
Shelley empathizes with educators who have thought about running so they can serve students on a larger scale and add a classroom educator voice to policy-making discussions. “The first step out of the classroom is scary. It’s not just about Des Moines and my district though. It’s about all of us in all of our districts. Educators are phenomenal problem solvers and are experts at making do with limited resources. As educators, we know all students can learn regardless of who they are or where they come from. And being on a school board is really about serving our students on a systemic level.”
In the eyes of campaign volunteer Karla Bromwell, a non-profit professional, Shelley’s passion for students and public schools sets her apart. “She really cares about kids, and she understands schools. Kyrstin has a unique lens on what goes on in the school every day, which gives her a great perspective.”
Minutes after the election results were announced — Shelley edged out the third-place finisher 31.27 percent to 30.10 percent for one of two open seats — she thanked her supporters. “I know that this election isn’t just about me. It’s about all of us building our communities, building up our schools. There are 33,000 students in Des Moines who depend on their schools. And I intend to show up for our kids every day, in the classroom and on the school board. The real work has just begun.”