by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A position aimed at supporting students of color that families have advocated be added to Winona Area Public Schools is slated for a vote on Thursday. The cultural liaison position has been discussed by board members at several meetings following George Floyd’s death, which sparked calls for equity in Winona and throughout the U.S.
“I don’t have any comment,” WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit said about a cultural liaison position at the WAPS Board’s September 17 meeting. “I’ve looked at a salary range or whatever that would pertain to that, if we were to consider that. But I will stand on the fact that we do not have any additional funds in our general fund right now for adding a position that wasn’t already considered in there, not that I don’t support the idea. I would really like to see us study this through our student support services study group that [the board] tasked me with and really look at it comprehensively. And that’s about all I have to say.”
School Board member Karl Sonneman noted that he had recently read an article about a Minnesota student dying by suicide after facing bullying issues at school associated with their cultural background and other aspects of their identity, and he felt WAPS should take steps, including establishing a cultural liaison position, to combat such issues. “And I don’t know that we can wait much farther on this, that we need to find a way to move this forward and find a way to fund it, as well as to identify what we want done in the position description,” Sonneman shared.
Community members and WAPS students have voiced their support for a cultural liaison position being implemented in the district, student School Board representative Issara Schmidt stated. She also asked what means of support could be put in place other than a cultural liaison. “Because I think having someone in the building or having a support system like a cultural liaison is going to be really important,” Schmidt said. “And clearly, these — people have spoken. Students have said, ‘This is what we want. This is what we need.’ And if we can’t give them that, then what are we going to give them? … Because clearly, this is a really big problem. And I think we need solutions. And I think our community is calling for solutions. So if not a cultural liaison, then what?”
School Board member Michael Hanratty said he has asked to receive a plan about establishing a cultural liaison position at the past few board meetings, and he did not agree with using funds from the safe schools levy for student safety coaches instead of a cultural liaison. The board later approved a safety plan which includes student safety coaches in a split vote. “And that hasn’t happened, even though we’ve had calls for one, well, ever since I’ve been on the board, but specifically this summer, there’s been requests from the community that we look at that option, and we still haven’t been briefed on that,” Hanratty said of the board receiving a plan regarding a cultural liaison position.
As a researcher who researches, studies, thinks, reads and writes, School Board member Allison Quam noted that she comprehended wanting to study a matter such as a potential cultural liaison position before putting a plan for such a position into effect, but she did not want more time to be taken for the study. “But over the years, with working with and learning from members of the Black community, and learning from members of our Indigenous communities, people who look like me have studied and written and thought about these issues for a really long time, for a lot of reasons,” Quam shared. “Sometimes, that’s because we feel comfortable in that space instead of acknowledging the harm that we’ve all caused … So I don’t want to wait anymore.”
She wanted funds from the safe schools levy to be used for a cultural liaison position, she said. Collaborating with the district’s Diversity and Equity Committee, as well as the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee and the student group Our Voices, could help with determining to which culture the cultural part of the cultural liaison title refers, Quam said, as there are many different cultures.
School Board member Jim Schul shared that he felt a proposal regarding a cultural liaison position would come before the board relatively soon, and he thought district administrators needed time to develop the proposal. “I believe that it’s wise to take a look at it closely, see how it intertwines with the rest of our district organizational structure, so that this can be a real, effective position, impactful position,” Schul said. “So basically, our superintendent is going to be trying to build something on the ground as opposed to something in the sky. Right now, we have something in the sky.”
School Board member Tina Lehnertz shared that she did not feel that board members had sufficient information to decide whether to establish a cultural liaison position, and she was in agreement with giving district administrators more time to craft a proposal about such a position. “I understand the need for change, and I know that we have to make those moves and make those changes,” Lehnertz said. “And it’s not that I’m against a cultural liaison. I just, if we’re going to do something like this, I don’t just want to do it to do it. I want to do it right.”
Schmidt said she understood board members wishing for a plan regarding a cultural liaison position to be considered thoroughly before coming to the board table, as well as by board members, but she did not want the topic of a cultural liaison position to get set aside at the board table. “And we can’t, we have to think about this. We have to address all minorities,” Schmidt shared. “I mean, if we bring in a cultural liaison, are they going to represent Asian heritage? Are they going to represent Hispanic heritage? We can’t just slap a band aid on a problem. So I think this needs to be well thought out … I just really hope that this can be something that we do and this can be a goal, and this isn’t just something we’re going to say and we’re going to table it and we’re never going to come back to it.”
Schul noted in relation to a cultural liaison position that, “As long as I’m on this board, I’m not going to forget this. So I just want to make that clear. I do think it’s important.”
Further consideration of a cultural liaison position should be accomplished within the student support services study group, Board Chair Nancy Denzer said. She noted that she came to her stance based on her 34 years of experience in education over which she hired individuals for a variety of roles related to student support services, from cultural liaisons to safety specialists to social workers to counselors. “It is a service to our students, and it is something that does need a collaborative effort for it to work, with a group of people that can support the work that’s being done across the district,” Denzer stated. “So, I’m not opposed to having a position like this, but I am opposed to having it stand by itself. I don’t think that’s wise of us, and I also have been in a position where I’ve done that, and it has not worked because I hadn’t thought through the whole thing.”
Freiheit explained that she wants a cultural liaison position to be long-lasting and effective with supporting students of color. “Well, we have students of color who make up 20 percent of our student body, so out of 2,700 students, that’s quite a bit of students,” Freiheit said. “And I want to be very thoughtful and intentional about what we put in place to be able to help be comprehensive in regards to that, so that it is sustainable and not just one-shot deals all the time here and there, but bringing about some more sustainability with that so we can address it.”
School safety plan approved
The board at its last meeting also approved a school safety plan which features student safety coaches who would supervise common areas of school buildings, foster positive connections with students and families, promote positive student behavior, taking part in positive behavior support training and collaborate with fellow staff members to put the strategies into effect equitably.
Existing safety specialists at the middle and high schools would shift to safety coaches, and safety coaches would be hired for the elementary buildings. Freiheit said hiring would not take place now, but would be re-evaluated once more students are regularly attending class in-person. The board would be informed when she is considering hiring, she said.
Sonneman said he did not oppose the safety plan in most respects, but with only so many funds available for hiring, particularly amid the district having extra costs related to COVID-19, he would prefer that a cultural liaison be hired rather than more safety coaches. “They are two different positions. They do different things. But they both legally fall within the … [safe schools levy] safety funding, at least as I understand it and from what I’ve heard,” Sonneman shared. “And I think that we need to do that. If we only have enough money for two positions rather than three, one of those two positions needs to be the cultural liaison.”
Hanratty said he agreed with Sonneman. “To me, it’s all about funding,” Hanratty noted. “And the safety coach is a great idea. We have different options with how many we hire, and I agree with Director Sonneman that we could remove one of those options and fund a cultural liaison for that, for a solution there.”
The job duties for safety coaches of developing positive relationships with students and families, providing support to increase educational equity for students, reinforcing positive student behavior, participating in positive behavioral interventions and collaborating with other staff members to implement practices with equity seem to fall under the category of student support services, Quam said. She added that student support services are being analyzed by a study group, and Freiheit and some board members had said a cultural liaison position should be considered as part of that study instead of being established by the board. “And so if we’re going to be consistent, we should not be approving this safety plan with the addition of new jobs,” Quam noted. “It should be removed from the plan and be included in the study that the board directed the superintendent to do back starting in June. This is exactly what Chair Denzer was talking about as well, is highlighting specific positions without thinking of the whole, right? So, if we’re going to apply that standard to the cultural liaison, I would like us to apply that standard here.”
Sonneman made an amendment to remove the hiring of additional safety coaches from the safety plan and include consideration of establishing and hiring for a safety coach position in the student support services study group’s work. The amendment did not pass with Denzer, Schul, Lehnertz and School Board member Steve Schild voting no. The motion to approve the safety plan passed with Schul, Lehnertz, Schild and Denzer voting yes.
The board will meet this Thursday, October 1, at 6 p.m. The meeting may be viewed at https://winonak12mnus.finalsite.com/district/school-board/live-stream. Public comments may be submitted on the night of the meeting between 5:15 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. at https://forms.gle/AsjSw84r3NHyyN4L7.