by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A cultural liaison position will not immediately be established in Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) following WAPS Board members voting 3-4 Thursday to not develop such a position in the near future and 5-2 to include consideration of such a position in a study of the district’s student support services. Calls for a cultural liaison position to be developed arose after George Floyd’s death in May sparked nationwide discussion of racial inequities and a June rally in Winona at which former and current students of color, as well as parents and current and former staff members, spoke about their experiences with inequity in the district.
Several community members submitted public comments in which they voiced their support for the creation of a cultural liaison position at the board’s October 1 meeting.
“I believe that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students need a person they can bring their concerns to who understand what they’ve lived … Other public school districts have cultural liaisons for these purposes, and those that I’ve spoken to all have expressed that creating this position has nothing but positive results,” Winona mayoral candidate Jovy Rockey wrote in her public comment. “The time is now to serve our families in more meaningful ways so that the students are supported and feel they too can thrive equitably in the WAPS school district.”
“Hiring a person to create equity with people of different cultures would be an added asset to the district,” another community member noted in their public comment. “Instead of doing nothing, let Winona become a leader for others to follow.”
“To further delay the hiring of a cultural liaison is to do a huge disservice to students, and especially to families of color in WAPS, and all WAPS students, families, teachers and administrators,” a different community member shared in their public comment.
Board member Tina Lehnertz moved to include consideration of a cultural liaison position in a study of student support services which is beginning to take place now and will occur throughout the fall. The group completing the study aims to bring a final report containing its analysis of and recommendations for student support services to the board at its December 17 meeting. Lehnertz’s motion was later passed.
“I don’t think it will hurt us to wait that little bit to see what she [Superintendent Annette Freiheit] comes back with,” Lehnertz shared. “It doesn’t mean that I believe that it isn’t necessary, that something isn’t necessary. I just, if we’re going to do it, I want to do it right. And I don’t believe that one person can take care of all of the kids that we need them to take care of.”
Including consideration of a cultural liaison position in the student support services study illustrates the district’s dedication to reviewing such a position, board member Jim Schul stated. “But it’s a message to the public that we take this seriously, that we’re going to be intentional with looking at this concept,” Schul said.
Board member Karl Sonneman expressed his concern that in including consideration of a cultural liaison position as part of a broader study of student support services for a student body which is mostly white, a review of such a position may become lost.
Board member Allison Quam asked whether the student support services study group would change if consideration of a cultural liaison position were to be added to the study.
Consideration of a cultural liaison position could fit into the student support services study, Freiheit said. “I view student support across the board based on what our students need,” Freiheit noted. “So I feel that the cultural liaison could very easily be considered as a part of this, because I see that as supporting our students and helping build those connections for the students and families in the areas that they need it.”
Quam asked if the student support services study group has discussed how to address the needs of students of color.
An initial meeting has been held with district social workers and counselors who will be part of the group, Freiheit explained, and the membership of the rest of the group is being determined currently before its first meeting in a few weeks.
Sonneman asked if the group would include people of color. Freiheit said she has asked student School Board representative Issara Schmidt about students who could serve in the group, and she is working to identify parents and guardians, as well as staff members, for the group. Sonneman also asked whether individuals at local universities had been contacted about serving in the group, and Freiheit said she was open to considering ideas for people who could participate.
Lehnertz’s motion was approved with Schul, Lehnertz, board chair Nancy Denzer and board members Steve Schild and Michael Hanratty voting yes.
Sonneman moved to amend Lehnertz’s motion. His amendment moved that WAPS establish a cultural liaison position, and the individual filling the position work mostly at Winona Senior High School while being able to work at other schools in the district when needed and available to do so. His amendment also moved that Freiheit create a job description with details about matters such as salary and benefits by October 16 and hiring start immediately after the development of the job description. The amendment moved that the ’20-21 budget be changed to include the salary and benefits for the cultural liaison position as well. In the amendment, Sonneman noted that the ’20-21 budget has a surplus of over $400,000 which is meant to increase the fund balance at the conclusion of the year. The amendment ultimately was not approved.
“We have a number of persons from diverse cultural backgrounds who are persons of color … And I think [a cultural liaison position has] been needed,” Sonneman shared. “It’s not something that’s new, and it’s time to move forward.”
Quam said that in her professional experience, she has learned that as someone who is white and of Norwegian ancestry, she cannot thoroughly grasp what it is like to live in the world for people of a different background than her, and she, hence, cannot fully assist a child who is a person of color and comprehend the trauma they experience.
“I understand the perspective that some of you want to take this holistic approach,” Quam noted. “But I don’t … although a position such as this might in included in that [student support services study], I don’t really see, unless the conversation, the student support services group, is led by a person of color, is led by a Black person, led by an Indigenous person, and that all, if that’s part of the goal and those of us who are white step aside and listen to those conversations, I think we’re going to keep repeating ourselves and not actually head toward the moment of reconciliation and healing that we really want. I believe we all want that.”
“Is it a perfect plan? I don’t think any plan is going to be perfect. We’re going to learn as we go. But I think this is the best plan that we have,” Quam continued regarding Sonneman’s amendment.
Lehnertz asked whether the budget surplus amount mentioned in Sonneman’s amendment was accurate. Finance Director Kristy Millering explained that there is such a surplus, but the amount includes restricted funds — funds which the district must use for a certain purpose — that it may not be possible to use to fund a cultural liaison position.
Budgets display what is important to the groups that develop them, and some funds may be redirected from the purpose for which they were originally budgeted to a new purpose, Quam noted. “We have the power to shift funds … again, the budget is what you prioritize,” Quam stated. “And if you don’t prioritize hiring a cultural liaison, then that’s where you are. I think it’s something worth prioritizing. I know that it is the right thing to do. I believe it. I see the benefit. I’ve seen the benefit of such a person, such a position, and what that means for the well-being of so many children and their families.”
Sonneman’s amendment did not pass with Schild, Lehnertz, Schul and Denzer voting no.
The board will next meet on Tuesday, October 13, at 6 p.m.