After nearly four hours of piercing public discussion, the St. Tammany Parish School Board on Thursday shifted gears on a proposal to hire a consultant and develop an equity policy for the school district, opting instead to bring together parties from all sides of the controversial concept to figure out a way forward.
Meeting as a committee as a whole, the board voted down a resolution by member Dennis Cousin to engage an external consultant who would “evaluate and develop a strategic equity action plan to ensure that discrimination does not affect outcomes” for students and faculty members. That resolution failed by a 10-3 vote, with Cousin, Lisa Page and Shelta Richardson voting for and Tammy Lamy abstaining.
Board member Ronald Bettencourt then offered a substitute resolution that affirms the school system’s adherence to all federal discrimination laws and supports “ongoing efforts to identify and address any and all areas that may need improvement.” Member Michael Dirmann tacked an amendment to Bettencourt’s resolution calling for workshops involving those for and against the consultant proposal. The workshops will include representatives from the school system and community, officials said.
The vote on Bettencourt’s resolution was 12-1-1, with member Mike Winkler voting against and Cousin abstaining.
The board action comes after several months of debate and email exchanges among community and school system representatives over the racial equity proposal, which was offered against the backdrop of racial tension and civil unrest across the U.S.
The drive to adopt an equity policy for the school district began during the summer as an outgrowth of a Facebook page called For the Good of Slidell, which was designed to address myriad community issues.
Karen Vander, who heads the Facebook group’s education action team, presented a draft of an equity policy to school officials in July. She and other proponents said an equity policy would address such issues as classroom placement and whether students of color are overrepresented in special education, underrepresented in gifted and talented, honors and accelerated programs. It would also address whether there are disparities in discipline.
Proponents of the policy also question whether the system is doing an adequate job of recruiting a racially and culturally diverse employee base and if there is fairness in promoting policies.
Board member Michael Nation led off the discussion Thursday night, taking a stand against Cousin’s resolution by saying passing it would be tantamount to accepting the theory that the school district is institutionally and systematically racist. He said moving to create such a policy is unnecessary, divisive and could eventually lead to a dismantling of the school system.
Cousin assured board members and attendees that the goal is not to dismantle the school district. “We’re trying to make it better.”
Richardson argued in favor of the resolution, a position she said has drawn harsh criticism. “Over the past few weeks, I’ve been called a Marxist and a Socialist,” she said, assuring the audience she is neither.
The school district needs an objective, outside consultant to determine if it is handling equity issues properly or if steps need to be taken to improve certain areas, Richardson and other supporters said. “Why are we so afraid to be honest with ourselves about who we are,” she said. “Let’s be brave. We need someone to help us navigate these waters.”
Bettencourt reeled off a list of programs currently in place to address equity issues. “We’re not sitting on our hands,” he said, suggesting than the district do an internal review of the current policies before bringing in an outside consultant.
Vander was one of dozens of audience members to address the board Thursday night, some making multiple trips to the podium. Most, but not all, spoke in favor of the equity policy.
“We’re not a far left or far right political group,” Vander said, noting that it has no affiliation to the Black Lives Matter movement. “We’re not trying to undermine or destroy our school system. We’re just trying to help students.”
Some speakers said the policy is reminiscent of critical race theory, which could create racial division and a toxic education environment for students and teachers. Others questioned the expense of hiring an outside consultant.
Interim Superintendent Pete Jabbia said the administration did not have a cost estimate on hiring a consultant, but other officials estimated it would be approximately $100,000. Dirmann said questions like cost and benefits could be addressed by the workshop groups before the board decides whether to hire a consultant and institute a racial equity policy.
“I just think we need more information,” he said. “We need more information than what we have.”