by ALEXANDRA RETTER 

 

The application to serve on Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS)’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee (DEI) will soon open for community members, in addition to district staff, families and students. 

At DEI’s October 14 meeting, members worked to develop the application. School Board members Stephanie Smith, Steve Schild and Karl Sonneman currently make up DEI. They set rough membership parameters, and they also determined that they will pick applicants to recommend to the School Board, which will then vote on who will ultimately be a member. Finally, they established a timeline for completing this work and set December 14 as the first meeting of DEI with the new members. 

DEI has met twice since School Board members voted in September to dissolve WAPS’ previous diversity and equity committee, DEC. Several members said establishing DEI would elevate diversity and equity work in the district and provide a more direct line between the committee and the School Board. About 10 members of the public, including members of local organization Winona Residents Organizing Against Racism (ROAR), attended both meetings. In a shift from the first DEI meeting, members of the public were allowed to comment at the beginning and end of the meeting.

One of the most substantial tasks for DEI was deciding on a membership structure. They chose to aim for six staff members, nine community members and three students. Previously, DEC discussed how to increase the inclusivity of its membership, but struggled to do so. Some of DEC’s members of color said they did not feel the committee had a welcoming atmosphere, and they would not invite fellow people of color to join. 

Another major task for DEI was working to create an application to serve on the committee. Members chose to include questions about thoughts on diversity and equity in education and why applicants want to serve on DEI. Sonneman also proposed including a question about whether applicants are a person of color or member of another minority group. Schild said he agreed with the spirit of the question, but asked if it was legal to ask it. Superintendent Annette Freiheit explained that another district committee’s application includes an optional question about how applicants self-identify. “I think in our context, that’s important,” Sonneman said. Schild also said he would want it stated on the application that the information provided by applicants who don’t answer the question will still be considered. Ultimately, DEI included the optional question. The application will be finalized in the coming days, Freiheit said, and DEI members may still offer revisions. 

At the end of the meeting, community member Marci Hintz said in a public comment that an important question left off the application regarded one’s lived experience with equity and the perspective that lived experience would bring to the committee. She added that she thinks the committee members have good intentions, but the elephant in the room was addressing the experience of students of color, and hearing from people of color in the community would help with that. “I think you want that,” she said. “The application process is really crucial for that.” 

In a public comment at the beginning of the meeting, community member LaShara Morgan asked about the lived experience of DEI members that would help them choose applicants to recommend. Smith spoke of receiving support from the community while growing up and wanting to offer that support to students; Schild spoke of being elected to serve on the board; and Sonneman spoke of the same, while acknowledging his lived experiences were not that of a person of color. 

DEI members agreed to offer the application in digital and hard copy formats and notify district families about it through email and text, in addition to a press release and WAPS’ website. It would be translated, as well, Freiheit said. 

DEI members also worked out the details of how and when to review applications and officially begin meeting with new members. Once the applications are received, identifying information will be redacted, Freiheit said. Schild asked how the applications would be reviewed, given the sensitive nature of reviewing applications at a public meeting. Sonneman said DEI members could review them independently in private, then come together as a full committee for a public meeting to go over them. 

DEI then set the dates on which it will complete this work. The application will be open from October 25 to November 16. DEI will meet on November 30 to choose which applicants to recommend to the School Board. 

The School Board will vote on the list of recommended applicants on December 2, and DEI will meet with its new members on December 14. 

DEI established the fourth Tuesday of each month as its meeting date. Freiheit said this way, applicants know what they are signing up for. 

DEI will meet on November 30 at 6 p.m. 

Education@winonapost.com