Friday, June 15, 2012

Talking about Racism: From School to City Hall

A superintendent’s contract is extended as local debate deepens: Burlington’s school board has given Superintendent Jeanne Collins two more years, but debate over racism has revealed divergent views about coded language, intimidating behavior, and the continuing need for change.                        Story and videos by Greg Guma

ELL students from Somalia
protest outside BHS.
BURLINGTON, VT – The five hours of discussion leading up to an eventual school board vote to extend the contract of Burlington’s superintendent for two years offers a poignant demonstration of how difficult it can be to openly discuss racial tensions.
     Much of the meeting was consumed with parliamentary matters – whether to hold an executive session, whether discussion either in public or private could include an already completed evaluation of Superintendent Jeanne Collins, repeated requests for legal opinions from school board counsel Joe McNeil, and confusion over whether a motion represented an agenda change or merely a deletion. There was also the impact of Collins’ decision, midway through the evening, to let her contract and evaluation be debated in an open session.
     By midnight very few remarks had been squeezed in about the specific complaints or the underlying problems that have fueled the dispute.
     Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, pointed to this difficult dynamic in a letter following up with the school board after a particularly intense meeting in May. About one hundred parents, teachers and students had turned out to speak in favor and against the handling of diversity, equity, and harassment by school officials, particularly Superintendent Collins. Some were already urging the board not to renew her contract.
     Appel, who attended and spoke, wrote afterward that he was encouraged to see “white people with power honestly grappling with, and attempting to move the conversation about the school community climate forward.” Conflict and tensions in Burlington could be an opportunity if leaders can “rise to the challenge,” he argued. “This means leaders embracing rather than avoiding the necessary conversations.”
     The problem, however, is a “seemingly circular conversation.” As a result, wrote Appel, “little concrete progress has been accomplished despite this repeated rhetorical commitment to change the culture and close the various identified gaps between white middle-class students and others.”


COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: In May students, parents and teachers brought a strong message to the school board: they were tired of waiting for a serious work to address racism and unequal treatment. Dozens of people addressed the board for more than two hours, many calling for the resignation or replacement of Superintendent  Collins and other members of the administration. Local tension had increased since the release of a new diversity, equity and inclusion plan, its rebuttal by a math teacher, and a protest outside the high school.
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At the June 13 school board meeting that continued a discussion of Collins’ overall performance and contract begun after public testimony the previous evening, one response was to adopt what board Chair Keith Pillsbury called a “more rigorous evaluation process” for the superintendent. Over the next few months, the commissioners agreed, a voluntary ad hoc committee will work with her to develop specific, measurable goals.
     But the meeting stumbled over whether discussion of Collins’ contract should occur in public or executive session.  Without any vote the contract would have automatically continued until June 30, 2014. Ultimately, the board voted 9-5 to reaffirm that agreement.
     One group of board members, including those who later voted to terminate the contract in one year, wanted a private discussion before taking a public vote. Most of those supporting the superintendent opposed the executive session. The result was a tie vote, spelling defeat of the move to exclude the public and press.
     Chairman Pillsbury supported the public route. “People want to know our thinking,” he said. But Board member Meredith King accused him of “managing the story” on behalf of Collins since criticism erupted over the district’s handle of a new Strategic Plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We’ve being sitting here for two months while the issues swirled around us,” she charged, adding that Pillsbury had made it difficult to go into executive session for a frank discussion.
     King was one of several commissioners who felt that the school board has been “put in a corner” by the actions of its administration and the board leadership.  Commissioner Jill Evans called Pillsbury’s handling of the matter “problematic,” and wanted to add that to the executive session agenda.
     Haik Bedrosian and Catherine Chasan were equally adamant in support of Collins. Bedrosian led the successful charge to drop the executive session, attempted to adjourn the meeting before a vote on the contract could be taken, and described non-renewal as “firing” the superintendent. After attempts not to renew and to offer a compromise six-month extension failed, Chasan pushed for the affirmative vote to extend the contract until 2014, although that was not required.

Anti-racism training at City Hall?
Only a handful of observers remained in the cavernous auditorium at Burlington High School by the time the school commissioners voted. But the issues raised by the dispute over school leadership on racism and equity are about to spill over into city government.
     Vince Brennan, the Progressive city councilor who chaired the Diversity and Equity Strategic Plan task force and later became one of the first to call for Collins’ replacement, has joined with Independent Karen Paul and Rachel Siegel, also a Progressive, on a related resolution for the June 25 city council meeting.
     The resolution is still being drafted, and may include proposals concerning the city’s hiring and minority retention policies. In its current form, distributed by Brennan at a recent school board meeting, it already calls for anti-racist training of all city employees, the city council, and more than 100 commissioners. If approved, development of the program would begin this fall, with training that commences no later than next January.
     It also asks the city administration to develop an ad hoc committee by July 16, including experts in anti-racist training, local stakeholders, department representatives and council members, to plan and implement the proposed training program. The draft acknowledges that the cost of such a program is not insignificant, but argues that it “can be a strong beginning to addressing racism, both overt and subtle, in our community.”


A FORUM ON EQUITY: In early April racial disparities turned out to be the main event at the first working session of the City Council after a new mayor took charge. Students of color are 27 percent of the student body in Burlington’s public schools, according to a Task Force report, and more Black students drop out of school. They're less likely to take SAT tests and more likely to be suspended. The report was supposed to set the stage for a strategic plan to address diversity, equity and inclusion. On April 16 School Superintendent Collins and Board Chair Pillsbury outlined the efforts that led to its recommendations. But not everyone was satisfied. Some teachers said they had been excluded, and residents pointed to ongoing racial disparities.
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Democrat David Hartnett, although an unlikely supporter for an anti-racism training resolution, recently made a related point in his regular column for the North Avenue News. Hartnett, who managed Republican Kurt Wright’s campaign for mayor last winter, disagrees with Brennan about how well Burlington’s schools are doing. “While imperfect, the schools are doing a very good job.” But he wrote that “all of Burlington needs to be part of the solution.”
     In the bigger picture, said Hartnett, “this is not just about the schools. As a whole community we need to do better.”
     Wright attended the Tuesday school board meeting and spoke up for Collins. “No one asked me to come,” he noted before arguing that “she is capable of doing what is right” and it would be a “huge mistake not to retain her.”

Lost Trust and Heated Language 
What began last October with an ambitious plan for top-to-bottom educational change -- training for everyone, more people of color and “culturally competent” staff, better leadership and accountability, increased transparency, and a “multicultural mindset” – has turned into a sometimes painful but much broader community debate over the persistence of institutional racism, and even how the problems are discussed.
     At dueling press conferences last week in the run up to the school board’s decision, supporters and critics of the current leadership attempted to define the problem using often stark language.
     Episcopal Bishop Thomas Ely called racism “a deeply rooted disease of the soul,” and suggested that Collins may have experienced a “conversion” since admitting that she was slow to address the problems.
     Rabbi Joshua Chasan, a leading Collins supporter who organized the press event on the back steps of City Hall, took the opportunity to apologize for having previously used the term “bullying” to describe some criticism of the superintendent. However, he argued that he was just responding to the unfair charge that some school board members were racist. Chasen concluded that he should have said “intimidating.”
     Chasan was grateful to the high school students, he said, mainly to the new American students in ELL classes who protested about their treatment and image in April. But he viewed Collins’ “slowness to see the dimensions of the problem,” along with her “capacity to apologize,” in a hopeful context. In background information provided to the media, he went further, predicting “social breakdown” and “communal meltdown” if any move was made to replace her in response to criticisms.


PROTESTING RACISM: On April 19 English language (ELL) students were joined by local activists and parents for a morning protest a few feet from the front door of Burlington High School. The students felt unfairly judged by outdated tests and objected to statistics that they felt correlates poverty with poor academic performance. Despite progress or promises of change in the new strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, they said racism remained a real and persistent problem.
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Two days after religious leaders held a press conference in late May, an ad hoc group met at the Fletcher Library to repeat the call for non-renewal of the contract. Erik Wallenberg said that trust had been “eroded beyond repair as a result of her (Collins’) years of resistance, and demonization of those who raise concerns.” He and others claimed that the school administration was doing the intimidating.
     “She can’t overcome the betrayal,” Wallenberg claimed. “We need transformational leadership.”
     Suzy Comerford, a parent with two children attending local schools, accused the school district of spending money on public relations to frame the issue as “divisive and bullying.” She meanwhile faulted the media for focusing only on racial inequities. The issue is “more than about just race,” Comerford said, “it is about the needs of kids with disabilities, of children from low-income families, and about new American children’s education, whatever their skin color.”
     Education and equity consultant Denise Dunbar, a Hinesberg resident, went after the idea, expressed by some people who have spoken at public meetings, that they are “colorblind” or “don’t see race.” Dunbar called such language “a newer face of liberal denial” and, quoting Angela Davis, suggested that claims of color blindness are “camouflaged racism.”
     At the board’s Tuesday meeting several speakers made a point of saying that they are not colorblind.
     Some in authority are involved in a “cultural war” that upholds the status quo and uses coded language like “civil” and “bully” to define insiders and outsiders, Dunbar charged. She also faulted the religious leaders who met earlier for taking Collins’ side, and for “a demonization of advocates and stakeholders for equity and equality.”
     Such remarks can cut deep. There have also been accusations that both teacher and student voices have been “squelched and discredited.” During the debate some of those who spoke, and a few on the board, expressed concern about the larger effects of what some called “poisonous” or “dangerous” rhetoric. Hartnett has charged that the local debate “is on the verge of being destructive.”
     As the school board’s decision approached last night, however, the appeals became more nuanced. Brennan did not reiterate his call for Collins’ replacement. Instead, he called her recent missteps unfortunate while agreeing that some things have begun to change.
     Rev. Roy Hill, a Collins supporter who is president of the Vermont Ecumenical Council and Bible Society, also struck a tone of reconciliation, while warning against targeting scapegoats.  Others said it simply wasn’t the best time for someone new as superintendent.
     State Rep. Suzy Wizowati, a Diversity Now supporter, concluded that blaming one person for the community’s problems is a mistake, like “expecting one person to change the world.”

Accusations of Intimidation
 In response to mounting criticism Superintendent Collins has released an action plan, based on recommendations in the original Strategic Plan, and has pledged to “eliminate race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation as predictors of academic performance, discipline, and co-curricular participation.”
     The steps she has described include strengthening complaint procedures, upgrading professional development, reorganizing administrative staffing to improve the handling of equity issues, improving retention of a more diverse staff, and creating an Equity Climate Team to monitor and follow up on incidents.
     Her critics say that they have heard such promises before and do not believe, based on its past performance, that the current administration is up to the challenges.
     In print and public statements Collins has repeatedly admitted that she missed opportunities, acted too slowly, and has been bureaucratic rather than heart-centered in her response. Beyond taking the steps outlined recently and refocusing her efforts, possibly under increased school board scrutiny, she therefore plans to spend more time actually interacting with students and teachers in the schools.
     But as Appel’s May 10 letter to the board suggests, while frank discussions and rhetorical commitment are hopeful signs they have happened before and leave some issues unacknowledged.  He argued, for example, that existing resources are not being smartly deployed, specifically asking why Diversity Director Dan Balon “appears to be being kept on the sidelines.”
     Confirming suspicions that some school administrators do not adhere to the superintendent’s zero tolerance standard, Appel also reported from “multiple credible sources” that Vice Principal Nick Molander tried to intimidate speakers after the May public forum.  According to Appel’s sources, Molander sought out several people of color and “in a confrontational manner informed them, in so many words, that their perspectives were not valid.  The perception of those who received this message from Mr. Molander was that he was attempting to intimidate them.”
     Appel informed the board bluntly that an administrator who does that “should not be in a school setting, and should have his licensure investigated.” If Molander behaves like this with adults, he added, “just imagine how overbearing and abuse he may well be one-on-one with a student of color in an unsupervised context.”
     Denying itself the option of an executive session to discuss personnel, evaluation and contract matters the school board did not get near this level of scrutiny in dealing with Collins responsibilities and contract. There were only indirect references to the difficulties of supervisory oversight and how to define board and management responsibilities.
     School board members meanwhile emphasized that equity issues were not the only matters bring addressed, in general or in relation to Collins’ tenure. As Jill Evans, one of several commissioners on the losing side of Wednesday’s votes, put it in a local newspaper column, the school board “is not exclusively concerned with race in its decision.” But the district does need “a visionary leader who can be proactive and take risks.”

SUPERINTENDENT UNDER FIRE: After months of criticism, Burlington School Superintendent Jeanne Collins responded to charges she had ignored racism with new plans to move forward. But questions at a June 1 press conference centered on what went wrong and whether the School Board would extend her contract. Collins talked about bringing more of her heart into addressing harassment and racism, and Board Chair Keith Pillsbury was pressed about whether she is the right person to lead in the future. Two weeks later Collins received a contract extension.
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