School Board to form new group from scratch

 

by ALEXANDRA RETTER

and CHRIS ROGERS

 

The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board disbanded the existing Diversity and Equity Committee (DEC) last Thursday. Now, some School Board members will sit on a new Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee (DEI)  and determine how to organize it. The dismantling came with limited communication to, and no input from, DEC members, including the committee’s few members of color. 

School Board members voted at their September 16 meeting to dissolve the existing committee and create a new committee. School Board members Stephanie Smith, Steve Schild and Karl Sonneman volunteered to serve on the new committee. “You are the committee now,” School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said. Their initial work will be to define DEI’s future structure. Sonneman also invited School Board member Michael Hanratty to be involved with these first efforts. 

“The hope is we are building a stronger committee designed to address the concerns we keep hearing from the community, particularly the community of color,” Sonneman said. At the School Board’s August 19 meeting, several School Board members voiced their support for the board becoming more involved with DEC’s work. Sonneman reiterated this stance at the board’s September 2 meeting, stating, “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.” 

Previously DEC was termed a “district committee.” Making the new diversity committee a full-fledged “School Board committee” gives it a more direct line to the School Board, Sonneman said in an interview. “It gives the whole topic of diversity, equity and inclusion a lot more significance. It boosts the power factor of what the committee can accomplish,” he said. Sonneman also described the move as “making the board more responsible for itself addressing the topic.” “We want to take it forward and bring it [to the point] where the board is going to address this more directly,” he added.

“I like this idea that we’re going to take responsibility [for] this work because it needs to be done,” School Board member Jim Schul said at the board’s August 19 meeting. ”And instead of just having a committee that sits around and talks about it, we need to collaborate and do it.”

Maurella Cunningham, a member of the existing DEC, had some concerns about the shift. She said in a public comment at the School Board’s September 16 meeting that the reasoning behind changing the committee was not clear. “I understand the dynamics of the committee,” she said. “But saying that it’s just sitting around talking or it’s a book club or something to that effect, that’s not what it is.” 

Community member Gregory Johnson had hopes for the diversity committee. He said in a public comment that he would like the group to be more diverse than in the past. “I’m hoping that you all can start to see that we want to get involved with this committee,” he told School Board members about people of color in the community. One of the existing DEC’s goals was to recruit more people of color and ensure their voices were heard.

District leaders did not consult DEC members on shifting the group to become a School Board committee or dissolving it entirely. DEC member Tesla Mitchell said she received an email in late August from Director of Teaching and Learning Karla Winter with limited information saying the School Board would be discussing the possibility of DEC becoming a board committee. “I’m really in the dark as to what that means for the committee and the members on the committee,” Mitchell said. She added that she had not heard anything about whether DEC would meet this fall, and she had not been asked about the committee restructuring. More communication, particularly about what dissolving DEC would mean for Mitchell as a member, would have been valuable, she said. “It would’ve been also great to have a better understanding of what was at the table, if dissolving was on the table,” she said. 

Prior to the School Board’s decision on September 16, it was not clear that board members would be considering disbanding DEC. Rather, Sonneman and Denzer initially presented the idea of DEC becoming a School Board committee at the board’s August 19 meeting, and Sonneman and Denzer presented a draft proposal by themselves, Superintendent Annette Freiheit and Winter regarding a potential organization of the committee at the board’s September 2 meeting. There was no mention of disbanding the committee and its members.

Freiheit said she was not aware of district leaders asking DEC members for their views on the change prior to it happening. Winter also said district leaders did not ask DEC members for their perspective, adding, “Because it’s a board decision … to have changed that committee.” 

DEC members received another email from Freiheit making them aware of the School Board’s decision on September 16. “Since the school board disbanded the district administration Diversity and Equity committee, there will be no first Monday of the month meetings effective immediately,” Freiheit wrote. “The school board thanks the members, both past and current, of the district administration diversity and equity committee and for the work you have started within the district. We hope you will continue to support this work as we transition the committee and would consider applying to serve on the school board DEI committee.”

By disbanding the DEC committee, the School Board also disbanded its membership, which included a few people of color who volunteered their time. So far the new committee’s membership includes three School Board members, Schild, Smith, and Sonneman.

Asked why the School Board would disband DEC and its membership and start a new committee completely from scratch, Sonneman responded, “Public members are encouraged to reapply. I just think there are fewer slots.” He added that keeping track of which members’ terms are expiring at what time can be tricky. “I think it’s better to just start from scratch,” he said.

DEC members had long been discussing how to make their membership more inclusive, especially by including more minorities. However, last spring, the majority of the committee’s members of color said they did not feel the committee was welcoming and would not invite fellow people of color to join. DEC members have also voiced frustrations about the district not consistently taking action on the committee’s work, such as a cultural liaison proposal that the School Board did not act on last September, and the pace of DEC’s work.

Will disbanding DEC and its only members of color and starting from scratch help the district make sure its new diversity committee is diverse? “I’m hoping it does, and I actually fully expect it will,” Sonneman said. “I was struck in the last couple months reading commentary from persons of color saying that they didn’t want to be on the committee at the present. I know some of the things that have gone on that have made people frustrated and I understand that. But I’m hoping that by giving it a fresh start we can get past all of it.” He added, “I’ve heard some frustration from persons of color, with DEC and with the district. We want to get past that. We want people to feel that they are heard.”

Could the lack of communication with DEC members discourage them from applying to serve on the new committee? “I don’t know that it would hinder [getting] a diverse group going forward, but whether we draw from the exact same pool as the past, I don’t know,” Sonneman responded. “I think there are many people. The community of people of color in Winona has grown and is growing … and I certainly hope we’re reaching a broader number of people than we have in the past.”

Schild said he would like representatives from communities of color, the district’s various schools and different student groups to be part of the committee. When asked how to include people of color on DEC, he said it would be beneficial to have student representatives, as well as representatives from the community. “Another thing I want to emphasize is it’s certainly communities of color have got to be represented,” he said. “This is, I think, a group that should look at equity throughout the system, and that would apply to everyone.” 

When asked the same question, Freiheit said the district will encourage families to apply for open positions, and potentially do some recruiting through listening sessions with families of color. 

As the new DEC begins its work, Winter said she did not know if members of the past DEC would be invited back to the committee, saying that determination would be the work of the new DEC. She would be glad to be on the new DEC, if her role is included in the new committee’s organization, she said. 

Freiheit said past DEC members are welcome to apply, once the new DEC has figured out how it is proceeding, and she will be part of the new DEI, just as she is part of the district’s other School Board committees. 

Winter said the new DEI will also determine the application process for the committee. 

The new DEI will meet on September 28 at 5 p.m. at Winona Senior High School. 

Chris@winonapost.com, Education@winonapost.com