Tue, 09 Aug 2022
Meet the West Des Moines school board candidates

Meet the West Des Moines school board candidates


West Des Moines school board candidates Jill Caton Johnson, Liz Cox, Jonas Cutler, Lonnette Dafney, Jeff Hicks and Jessica Worley. (Photo: Special to the Register)

Six candidates are seeking election to four seats on the West Des Moines school board. The candidates are incumbents: Liz Cox and Jill Caton Johnson, and newcomers Jonas Cutler, Lonnette Dafney, Jeff Hicks and Jessica Worley. 

David J. Brown and Melinda Dunnwald are not seeking reelection. 

Jill Caton Johnson

Age: 47

Place of birth: St. Paul, Minnesota

Grew up: Spencer

Current home: West Des Moines

Education: University of Minnesota, Ph.D. curriculum and instruction: literacy education, 2002; University of Iowa, M.A. early childhood education, 1995; B.A. elementary education, 1994

Work history: Drake University, director of graduate programs, teaching and learning, and professor of education, current; previously Iowa State University, West Des Moines Community Schools, Minnetonka Public Schools, and Amana Community School District

Political experience: West Des Moines school board, 2015-present

Civic involvement: Currently The Move Project. Previously United Way Education Cabinet and I Have A Dream board

Facebook: Jill Johnson for West Des Moines School Board

List your top three priorities for the school district and how you would address them.

Increasing learning/reflection opportunities for teachers, staff and administrators to meet the needs of a changing and diverse student population. We have started our work on equity and this most definitely needs to continue. Additionally, we need to continue reviewing policies and procedures as well as using data to help determine if we are meeting the needs of all students we serve. I also believe we need more focus on mental health education and support teachers in working with students with mental health challenges. 

Improving collaboration and communication among teachers, administrators, staff, students, parents and the community. We have expanded our outreach to families with new technologies (WDMCS app, text messaging, etc.) which is a good start to increasing communication. We have more to do. I would like our district to work alongside our cities and communities to collaborate on new initiatives benefitting all groups.  

Building positive learning environments as we strengthen our schools and increase engagement from students and teachers. I will continue to ask questions regarding students being career, post-secondary and life ready upon graduating from our school district.  We need to look for ways to partner and expand CTE (career &technical education) to meet the needs of our community. Continuing multiple pathways to advanced courses including AP and dual-credit is a priority. We also need to create positive spaces for our students and employees so all feel welcomed and appreciated. 

Liz Cox


Place of birth: 

Grew up: 

Current home: 

Education: University of Iowa, MBA and bachelor’s degree in psychology

Work history:  Polk County Health Services, CEO; previously Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, executive director; Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, COO and interim executive director; Due North and Associates, principal

Political experience:  West Des Moines school board, 2015-present

Liz Cox (Photo: Special to the Register)

Civic involvement: Rotary International, Great Outdoors Foundation, Mid Iowa Council Boy Scouts of America, Broadlawns Hospital Finance Committee, Polk County Children’s Mental Health Task Force, Network Against Human Trafficking

Website: votelizcox.com

Facebook: Liz Cox for WDMCS School Board

List your top three priorities for the school district and how you would address them.

Ensuring WDMCS provides positive and supportive programs for students who may not choose to go on to college or would otherwise feel disenfranchised.

Advance policies that support a thriving school culture where students are connected, and access to academic and mental health supports are readily available.

Develop facilities and programs that not only meet the needs of students, but also are accessible to the community.

Jonas Cutler

Age: 49

Place of birth: Des Moines

Grew up: Des Moines and Minneapolis

Current home: West Des Moines

Education: University of New Hampshire, J.D. and master’s degree focusing on intellectual property law, 2003; University of Minnesota, 1998

Work history: Currently compliance adviser and document analyst III for a local Fortune 500 Company. Previously New Hampshire Bureau of Securities regulation staff attorney, and worked in the Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis.

Political experience: The first student president of his law school, was elected as a member of the Iowa delegation of his party’s national convention and was elected as the county party secretary in 2013.

Jonas Cutler (Photo: Special to the Register)

Civic involvement: Was involved with the restoration with the mausoleum of former Iowa Gov. Samuel Merrill, helped raise funds to place a stone over the previously unmarked grave of Des Moines police officer George Mattern.

Website: jonas4iowa.org

Facebook: Jonas Cutler for school board

List your top three priorities for the school district and how you would address them

Community involvement is the greatest contributor to student success: I will ensure that West Des Moines maintains schools in our neighborhoods providing opportunity for students, their families, and the greater community to engage in the educational process. As a child I was bused outside my neighborhood losing the opportunity to participate in after school programs such as sports, drama, and additional instruction. My mother was unable to attend my concerts and conferences without taking time off of work which we could ill afford.  We should be engaging parents, neighbors, relatives, local businesses and other civic organizations rather than cutting them out. We must bolster and seek greater access for internships, after school employment, apprenticeship, and volunteer activities. We can do this with existing facilities and should never price students out of opportunities.

School policies should be meaningful and purposeful: One example is the healthy snack policy. Currently, students are not permitted to bring snacks to share to school, unless they have been deemed “healthy.” Prior to Valentine’s Day, the Principal of an elementary school sent out several emails reminding parents that candy and other treats would not be permitted. My daughter stuffed her Valentine cards with erasures that year.  When she came home I asked her what others brought, she showed me all the candy others brought. Lesson taught to the kids, and probably much to the frustration of the Principal, not all policies are to be enforced, some are selectively applied or just given lip service. Additionally, the school provides “healthy snacks” for a fee, including “frosted sugar cookie.” These are not the lessons I want for our children or a position I want our teachers and administrators to be in. 

Students need to be graded to measure their successes and identify areas of improvement: Teachers are professionals that should be empowered to perform the grading function. The district mandated grading system undermines the role of the teacher and the parent. Missing assignments are now given a 50% and conduct is not reflected in grading. Teachers are prevented from using “effort, participation, attitude and other essential life skills” when grading either as positive reinforcement or a negative consequence. Critical thinking, solid character, and positive attitude should be encouraged and teachers in a unique position to build upon these virtues. Teachers do more than just present a lesson plan, they are a cornerstone in building future civic leaders, and we should be supporting their efforts, not undermining their classroom presence. I will seek to restore rational grading focused on long-term student success. 

Lonnette Dafney

Age: 49

Place of birth: Des Moines

Grew up: Des Moines

Current home: West Des Moines

Education: William Penn University, B.S. in business management administration, 2006

Work history: Vice president-director of human resources at Federal Home Loan Bank in Des Moines. Previously was vice president-human resources business partner at Wells Fargo Home Lending, global talent development consultant at Pioneer Hybrid and a human resources consultant at Wells Fargo.

Political experience: None

Lonnie Dafney (Photo: Special to the Register)

Civic involvement: Member and volunteer with the Isiserettes Drill and Drum Team, Wells Fargo Volunteer Service Award winner, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.,United Way of Central Iowa Women United, The Links, Inc., Dress For Success Des Moines Board of Directors, West Des Moines Human Rights Commission, West Des Moines Historical Society Board of Directors

Facebook: Dafney for WDM School Board

List your top three priorities for the school district and how you would address them. 

Ensure our buildings are a place where all feel safe, supported, and able to thrive: Enhance the strategic planning and equity work the district is currently doing to include more diverse voices and representation. Being engaged, included in the conversation, decision making, and implementation are vital to the success. Equip all in the Ecosystem (Community, Administrators, Teachers, Staff, Parents, and Students) with tools and resources to continue building a culturally competent and healthy educational system. 

Work to create a more robust sourcing strategy for Administration and Staff to enhance the representation of Diversity in WDMCS: Review current practices and strategies and look for creative ways to engage talent for all positions in the district. Build more partnerships with organizations and communities to aid in the recruitment and sourcing of talent.  

Improve WDSMCS communication strategy to help engage more families: Broaden current communication strategies to make sure that all families are being reached and engaged in the full process of learning for their students. Build parent support networks to enhance their engagement with Administrators, Teachers, Staff, and the WDM Community.

Jeff Hicks

Age: 43

Place of birth: Knoxville, Iowa

Grew up: Knoxville

Current home: West Des Moines

Education: Drake University, J.D., 2011; University of Maryland, Master’s Degree in public administration, 2001; United States Air Force Academy, B.S., 1999

Work history: Currently assistant general counsel at Principal Financial Group. Previously litigation associate for Faegre Baker Daniels, associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and served as an intelligence officer and captain in the United States Air Force.

Jeff Hicks (Photo: Special to the Register)

Political experience: None

Civic involvement: United Way, YMCA, Iowa Legal Aid

List your top three priorities for the school district and how you address them.

I don’t have any predetermined agenda or hot button issue.  Any decision I make as a board member will be evaluated under three guiding principles:

1.  Are we enhancing the student experience? Does it truly help achieve a better learning environment? Are we considering all of the students, both from a diversity, age, and socioeconomic perspective, but also from an academic, fine arts, sports and ‘student-citizen’ perspective?

2. Does it help us attract and retain the best staff and teachers?  Are we allowing teachers to focus on teaching? Is the compensation and benefits package fair and competitive with the market, both for central Iowa and broader? Is the administration creating a positive culture for the teachers?

3. Are we being sound fiduciaries of the taxpayers’ money? Are we making fiscally prudent decisions? Are we making decisions with both a short and long-term perspective?

Jessica Worley

Age: 39

Place of birth: Seoul, South Korea

Grew up: Mason City

Current home: West Des Moines

Education: University of Iowa, B.A. in psychology; North Iowa Area Community College,A.A. and A.S.; Mason City High School

Work history: Currently a real estate agent for Iowa Realty and a substitute teacher. Previously worked at ACT in Iowa City.

Political experience: None

Civic Involvement: Hospital volunteer, Rotary of Des Moines, Westridge Elementary PTA

Facebook: Jessica Worley for West Des Moines

List your top three priorities for the school district and how you would address them.

The needs and wants of our teacher’s should always be taken into account. Many districts have lost great, stable, and long standing teaching staff because their voices were not heard and only the students are suffering from the loss.

Help ensure all West Des Moines schools have an equal voice throughout the process.

Effective learning environment. Meaning the amount of space, teacher to student ratio, and time committed to each and every student is effective and productive.

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