co and mary

Mary Miller listens as Co Crew shares her thoughts about being a substitute teacher. Miller assigns subs in the district.

KNOXVILLE — Local leaders and school staff shared hours of insights in November about how the Knoxville Community School District can best serve its students and partner with the community. On Tuesday, the Knoxville school board began the hard task of prioritizing what was gleaned from those discussion.

Life skills, career development, mental health and community partnerships were the four themes that emerged as pairs of board members and administrators discussed the insights. Many members were stunned by how quickly and clearly those themes surfaced.

“I was just amazed that it came from every group,” board member Vickie Reed said.

“It was like an echo,” board member Marty Duffy quickly added.

Getting to that point wasn’t quite so easy. Dozens of participants spoke for more than six hours during four November sessions.

Then it was left to KCSD Superintendent Cassi Pearson to distill their priorities over the past two months.

Things get no simpler moving forward, Harry Heilgenthal of the Iowa Association of School Boards said Monday. He came to Knoxville to help the KCSD board and staff.

Especially vexing, he noted, is the need to focus on mental health. Other priorities fit more neatly into the district’s established goals; mental health pervades most every aspect of the district, board members said.

Pearson mentioned district initiatives such as career readiness and the Suicide Prevention Task Force.

Much more can be done, but it’s hard to find time, energy and money to take on new priorities, she said.

“There’s nothing i read here that says all four of these areas need to be dealt with with equal energy starting next month,” Heilgenthal replied. He encouraged the board to take on the challenge like it might eat a whale, one bite at a time.

“What’s the next piece or two you can layer into your goals over the next year?” he asked.

Pearson said links between the issues and the opportunities to partner with community leaders might make the task easier.

“The kids who don’t have the strong life skills are the ones who struggle with mental health issues,” she said, sharing an example. “It’s all connected.”

The district’s leadership team will develop action plans around the four themes and bring them back to the board in the spring.

In other action, the board:

  • rejected a proposal by Teachers on Call, a Minnesota-based subsidiary of Kelly Services, to coordinate substitute teachers and associates for the district. KCSD faces a sub shortage, especially with teacher associates, school principals said. Knoxville Middle School secretary Mary Miller has assigned substitutes for many years. TOC said it could broaden the district’s substitute pool and take on other responsibilities as the subs’ employer. Current substitutes said they didn’t want to lose IPERS benefits and the local awareness that Miller provides. Duffy, Larry Scott and Andrew Schmidt voted against the proposal.
  • approved the sale of the former East Elementary School building to the city of Knoxville and an 18-month agreement with the city to lease storage space.
  • approved term sheets for the new tennis courts and basketball court to be built south of Knoxville High School, which allows the project to go out for bids.

Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at

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