SHELDON, Iowa — Robin Spears banged the drum for public education on his way out the door.
Spears, 64, closes the books on a career in education as this month ends. In his penultimate school board meeting, he sounded off on fears for democracy in the wake of the Iowa Legislature’s empty promises.
“School district budgets are not fully funded based on past promises,” he said. “Iowa needed to decide, as does our country, just where it is that we want to be with regards to serving our children? Is our democracy dead, or is it something still worth fighting for?
“If it is, the army that will win that war will be a well funded public education system that addresses the social, mental, emotional and academic needs of all our children so that they become productive citizens with the skills and attitudes necessary to become economically sufficient and successful at a post-secondary endeavor.”
I read about Spears’ address and went to Sheldon to see him on Thursday. Our paths nearly intersected 32 years ago in northeast Iowa. I graduated and left Starmont High School near Strawberry Point in the summer of 1986, just as Spears arrived as the new high school principal. (Call it a net gain for the Stars.)
Spears told me about serving my younger siblings who were high schoolers at the time. He also talked about dealing with a troubled young man who was new to the school district. He took that student aside, challenged him, held him accountable and, eventually, watched as he blossomed.
“That bookcase over there,” Spears said as he pointed across his office, “that was made by the student I’m talking about.”
He remembered students and teachers I’d long since forgotten. His recall amazed me, as did his history.
Robin Spears was born in Germany as his father served in the U.S. Air Force. His dad went to Vietnam in 1965 and stayed for 18 months. The elder Spears returned to Vietnam as a civilian and was killed there in 1968, leaving Robin Spears and four siblings to be raised by their mother, who went to work to support the family.
Spears was 14 and a freshman in high school when his dad died. He graduated in 1972, possessor of a 2.0 grade point average. “I was not a good student,” he said. “I worked 40 hours per week when I was in high school.”
He worked in a grocery store for six months after his high school graduation and came to the conclusion he wanted to find a career. So, he gathered what he had and trotted off to college at Northeast Missouri State University, now known as Truman State.
He earned his first job after college teaching in Edina, Missouri. He was there for three years before getting a pink slip as part of a staff reduction. “I went back to Northeast Missouri State as a graduate assistant and worked on my administrative degree,” he said.
He was hired at Northeast Hamilton in Blairsburg, Iowa, and served as the middle school/high school principal from 1983 to 1986. A 5-year stint at Starmont followed, as did a 2-year term at Clarinda (Iowa) High School.
Spears landed his first superintendency at Janesville, Iowa, in 1994 and came to Sheldon in 1997, at a point, he said, when the district was bankrupt and showing a negative year-end balance.
He and his wife, Karen, plan to stay in Sheldon in retirement. After directing 185 staff members and overseeing an approximately $11-million budget set to serve 1,070 students, it will be impossible to take his eyes off education.
As he spoke, he called up a spreadsheet showing that Iowa rated 27th in the country three years ago in education spending per pupil. He produced a second chart showing that teacher base salaries in Iowa, when adjusted for inflation, have been flat for 40 years.
He referenced Thomas Jefferson, often hailed as the father of public education, Scott Peck, author of “The Road Less Traveled,” George Washington, Ben Franklin, “Star Trek’s” Spock and the movie “Star Man,” all of them used to illustrate the importance education has in promoting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“You behave yourself out of a jam,” Spears said in recalling one of perhaps hundreds of sessions he’s had with students who have maligned themselves with bad choices.
Iowans, he noted, might be behaving themselves into a jam with choices they’ve made. The Legislature’s phased-in $2.86-billion income tax cut signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday may compromise the state and its ability to fund basic services, such as education, and those essential for the neediest among us.
“How do you run a state government when we lessen the amount of revenue each year?” Spears asked. “Have you ever gone in and asked for less money when you’re negotiating your salary?”
Sheldon, he continued, once received around $80,000 in Phase I and Phase II funds, or enough to help pay for two teaching positions. That aid was since cut, however, and the district had to fill it in. Portions of technology funding and Phase III funding also have been eliminated, as was the 20-percent state portion of the Instructional Support Levy.
“When you take all this into consideration, part of the problem is the lack of financial resources to be able to serve children, the other part is that schools have fewer resources and the requirements and expectations to do more just continues to increase,” he said to his school board.
While education, he said, seems to rate a priority on the campaign trail, doesn’t get the marquee treatment at the Capitol in Des Moines.
“We are doing the good works in public education,” Spears continued, disclosing that teachers in Sheldon have celebrated gains among students locally who’ve taken the ACT exam, as scores for the Orabs Sheldon’s ACT composite is two points above the state average.
“Our democracy and the ideals it professes are dependent upon our ability to be successful,” he said. “It burdens my thought processes to think the future here may not be what it needs to be.”
The American Dream, Spears concluded, involves having the ability, through education, to move up the ladder while becoming a successful, productive citizen. He had that chance and it took him from Missouri to Starmont and eventually to Sheldon.
Along the way, he said he hopes he had an impact on students and the teachers helping to shape the lives of young people, upon whom our freedoms will one day rest.
“Without us,” he concluded, “our democracy will crumble. I believe that.”