by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Will Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) Diversity and Equity Committee (DEC) soon be split into two subcommittees, with membership determined by the School Board? Board members will vote on such a proposal this Thursday.
The proposal comes after a majority of DEC’s few members of color said in May that they did not feel the committee was welcoming for people of color and they would not invite other people of color to join. DEC members have also expressed frustrations about the committee’s work not always translating into district action. The proposal also arrives at a time when no meetings are scheduled for DEC this fall while the School Board considers the proposal. It’s the only WAPS committee without meetings scheduled this fall.
DEC is currently a “district committee,” composed of staff, community members and a School Board member, as opposed to a “School Board committee” made up mostly of board members and administrators. The proposal to change DEC would include community members and students as part of the committee, though the School Board would have the final say on who is approved as a member.
Several School Board members said at their August 19 meeting that they supported the board playing a larger role in DEC’s work.
“At some point, the board perhaps has to take a step a little bit [further] … and become a bigger player,” School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said. The board honors DEC’s past work, she said. “But at least as this has developed over time, I think the committee gets stuck and needs the board to be more involved in a different way to help support the work,” she said.
“We’re seeing this as an increasingly important area and an increasingly important committee,” School Board member Karl Sonneman said, adding that DEC becoming a School Board committee would be a statement of how significant it is. At the board’s September 2 meeting, he noted, “This is actually an effort to make diversity, inclusion and equity more important in this district. It’s essentially a way of elevating the committee … that also recognizes the importance of the topic and the topics it covers.”
School Board member Steve Schild said at the board’s August 19 meeting that he thought it would be valuable to discuss what the committee should be and how it should function. “I think that would really help us to get somewhere with it and have it accomplish some of the things we hope it would accomplish,” he said.
School Board member Jim Schul said he agreed with the board taking responsibility for DEC’s work. “Instead of just having a committee that sits around and talks about it, we need to collaborate and do it,” he said.
When asked how the School Board would like to be more involved with DEC’s work in an interview, Sonneman said, “That’s what we’re trying to find out this fall … I’d love to hear more comment from the board.” For him personally, “I think bringing it front and center in front of the board would be a positive step in giving it importance.”
Denzer noted at the School Board’s September 2 meeting that she, Sonneman, Superintendent Annette Freiheit and Director of Learning and Teaching Karla Winter developed the proposal. In an interview, Sonneman said the idea for DEC becoming a School Board committee came from board members and administrators. Under the proposal, DEC would be broken into a diversity and inclusion subcommittee and an equity subcommittee. The full committee would have up to 18 members, with eight or fewer being staff and the rest being seven community members and three students. One board member would be a non-voting member. Freiheit and School Board representatives would review membership applications and make a recommendation to the board, which would then vote to approve who would be on the committee.
Cunningham has lingering questions about the proposal. She said it would be beneficial to receive more information about School Board members’ experiences with diversity, equity and inclusion that qualify them with choosing DEC members, as well as more information about the thought behind splitting DEC into subcommittees. Recruiting minority members and making sure minority members’ voices are heard has been a goal for the group. It would be valuable to include an inclusive group of families, staff and community members when selecting DEC members, additionally, she said. “I think including this group of people could be — to the board, district and most importantly students — an advantage because they will be more likely to get a team that can appropriately serve them,” she said.
The diversity and inclusion subcommittee would consider policies and programs to make the district welcoming, for instance, and include all the community members of the full committee. The equity subcommittee would think through policies and programs to get rid of barriers for students’ academic, social and emotional learning. “The idea of using the full committee to bring these two issues together is a reflection of their interrelationship in the past and the relationship that will be continuing,” Sonneman said in an interview.
The full DEC would meet four times each year, and the subcommittees would meet three times. The meetings would be open to the public, according to the proposal.
The School Board may choose to not change DEC’s structure, Denzer said.
Winter declined to comment last week, citing the School Board’s ongoing consideration of the proposal, and did not return a request for comment this week regarding questions about DEC’s current meeting schedule.
The School Board will meet on Thursday, September 16, at 6 p.m. The meeting may be attended in person at Winona Senior High School or viewed at https://winonak12mnus.finalsite.com/district/school-board/live-stream. Public comments must be submitted in person at the time of the meeting.