Equity, diversity and inclusion come to the forefront at school board meeting

Taylor Scott, Managing Editor

River Valley School District Office

Editor’s Note: Valley Sentinel decided to hold the Feb. 11 school board story from its Feb. 17 edition and publish it in this edition in order to ensure full consideration of the important equity, diversity and inclusion issues that were brought up at the meeting.

The River Valley School Board was asked to reckon with equity, diversity and inclusion issues at its Feb. 11 meeting, as a district parent brought concerns of racial harassment to the board, leading to an apology from the school board president and a promise to do more.

Equity, diversity and inclusion

During public comment, Susan Lee, a parent of two River Valley Middle School students, expressed her concerns regarding comments her multiracial family and others have gotten.

“Both of my kids, but mainly my son, has been a recipient of racial comments and harassment from other classmates in the last couple of years. Mainly directed towards him. My daughter is racially Chinese and she too has suffered from racially biased comments. And then recently through social media, I became aware of another family struggling with some serious racial harassment in elementary school,” said Lee. “I feel like I’ve had good responses from [Middle School Principal] Mr. [James] Radtke, [teacher and former building administrator] Sue Quale when she was there, Sara [Young] on the board and [District Administrator] Mr. [Loren] Glasbrenner. But I do feel like we kind of dropped the ball when COVID hit as far as moving forward and talking more about the issues related to bias, race, things like that. …I feel like we need to take some action. I think it’s been long enough.”

Lee continued that she was surprised that the district hadn’t issued a public anti-racist and inclusion statement, saying she noticed many other districts had included such statements recently. She expressed her concern that experiences of racism have a traumatic effect on kids.

“I feel like whether depending how you or anyone else sees these issues as major or minor or inconsequential, they have effects on the kids, they’re traumatic experiences. The kids seem, you know, they seem fi ne, they handle it, but it still has an effect. It’s a lasting effect. And I don’t feel like they should have to experience that kind of emotional insults.”

Lee went on to make several request for the school board to take action on:

  • a strong statement by the River Valley School District rejecting racism, in the form of a mission statement, or an equality and inclusion statement.
  • training on diversity and inclusion, and personal bias education for teachers, staff , students and parents.
  • the development of a rapid response protocol for situations that occur that are racially charged.
  • forming a committee to develop and oversee the implementation of district wide equality and understanding.

“I feel we need the school board on board to get going and get action taken in this way,” said Lee. “…I think that by not saying anything, you’re, you know, it makes us complicit in allowing it to continue.”

Lee said kids need to know how to stand up, expressing thanks that in the situations her kids were in, their friends stood up for them. “I think that, again, we need to send a clear message, that racism and other discrimination is not going to be tolerated here. If we don’t say anything, we’re basically not saying that it’s not tolerated and ought to do something before there’s a more severe incident, a more violent incident, a more embarrassing incident, or a scandal, because that’s happened around us in different school districts,” said Lee. “So we’re, you know, we’re in the situation that we can get ahead of that now, and do something now.”

School Board member Sara Young requested to be recognized in public comment for a chance to respond to Lee’s remarks, echoing Lee’s words and sharing she is confident the school board can find ways to be inclusive and tackle this issue.

“I just want to echo what Susan said, and thank her for speaking. I talked about this, I believe it was last July, after the murder of George Floyd. And said, right at that point, we were trying to figure out how to have school in the middle of a pandemic, and we’re trying to figure out Loren was just starting. And so I remember saying at that time, ‘we can’t, I’m not saying we should tackle this now, but, but it’s going to come up.’ And here we are. So I do think it’s time to do it. It’s never going to be a good time, as Susan pointed out, but it’s up to us to make sure that all students feel welcome, and that equity gets addressed in our school district,” said Young. “I will nod to the fact that this [working on equity and inclusion] is scary and uncomfortable, that there are going to be people that do not agree that we should be spending time or resources on this. …I understand that it’s, it’s easy for people to feel defensive and to feel like they’ve done something wrong.”

“We can handle that. And we can talk about this in a way, talk about equity and talking about students feel[ing] welcome and address those issues all at the same time. And, you know, include everybody in our process,” said Young.

Young said she has expressed to School Board President Kathy Jennings and District Administrator Loren Glasbrenner that she would like to be a part of finding a solution to the difficulty the district faces with this topic, and said she looks forward to getting started. Jennings took a moment to respond to Lee’s comments, offering an apology for failure from herself and the district to address this issue, and promising a timely solution.

“I’m sorry that this happened to you and your family and the other families in the district. …Loren and I have been talking about how to proceed with this. And I think we’ll see some action in this next month,” said Jennings. “The pandemic is not an excuse. I didn’t move forward. But that’s really been huge on our plate recently. But now we have a chance to address this. And I think this is a good time to move forward.”

Achievement Gap Reduction (AGR) program

The board heard from Elementary Principal Carla Peterson and took up an end of semester review of reports for the Achievement Gap Reduction (AGR) program.

Peterson said the funding is generally used to help keep class sizes low. The reports outlined measured baseline performance levels across several core subjects.

Of particular note when reviewing the reports, River Valley Elementary Grade 2 Reading showed that only 18% of students were at grade level during the fall testing period.

River Valley Elementary Grade 2 Math marked another low, with 36% of students at grade level during the fall testing period.

Other subjects and elementary grade levels were a mixed bag ranging from between 41-75% assessed to be at grade level.

“Overall, our baseline assessments from the fall were definitely lower than they have been in previous years. But when we miss three months of in-person school, that was to be expected,” Peterson said.

Vaccination of teachers

In his administration school district operations report, Glasbrenner advised the board that teaching staff are part of the 1B phase of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, with teaching staff becoming eligible Mar. 1.

Glasbrenner stated that, under the guidance of the Department of Public Instruction, the district human resources department was working to identify the staff that will fit into certain categories to prioritize vaccinations. The district has already reached out to local hospitals, pharmacies and clinics to coordinate vaccinating and anticipates staggering vaccinations, but there is no specific plan in place yet.

Spring sports and athletic complex redevelopment

Glasbrenner also informed the board he has been working with Activities Director Jaimie Hegland on spring sports and that they will be allowed to start, but will be late, starting on April 19.

The board heard from District Business Manager Brian Krey and School Forest/Buildings and Grounds Committee Mark Strozinsky regarding a preliminary cost estimate by Rettler Corporation for an Athletics Redevelopment Plan that would affect the current football field complex, redoing the entire field to include football and soccer.

Krey shared that he still had “sticker shock” from first seeing the numbers, “It’s a lot of money. One segment would be the track. If we just re-did the asphalt and the rubber, their preliminary cost estimate was about $470,000. And we had been talking about it being about $400,000-ish based on previous estimates.”

To pursue the entire redevelopment was estimated at $1,239,000, according to the preliminary cost estimate.

“We will have to have a serious discussion to determine the scope of this project and how we’re going to fund it,” Strozinsky stated, reminding everyone that the next School Forest/Buildings and Grounds Committee meeting will be March 15.

Krey assured the board that the project could go out for bids to see if a lower cost could be found. The board moved forward with soliciting bids.

“So we can come back and say, ‘You know what, not the right time.’ We got to live within our means, we’re not doing anything,” said Krey. “Or maybe we just do the track?”

2021-22 Budget Forecast/Projection

Krey also updated the board on the district’s 2021-22 Budget Forecast/Projection, projecting a surplus around $311,000 for 2021-2022.

“There’s pretty much a stable surplus we’re gonna have in fiscal year ‘22. But in ‘23, and beyond, you can see what our annual deficits will be,” said Krey projecting scenarios where the budget deficits climb to $3.5 million, $4.5 million and $5 million, over the next three years.

“We’re still waiting on the biennial budget, which will greatly dictate our revenues for the fiscal year of 2022 and 2023.”

High school science position

The board also filled the high school science teacher position left vacant by the departure of Mike Hill. The position was approved to be filled for one semester only by John Cler.

“Longtime science teacher, former high school principal and Richland Center, taught in Ithaca then actually, I think kind of in postretirement and he was willing and able to come back for this semester,” said Krey. “So we feel fortunate to have John on board.”

The district will seek to fill the position permanently for the next school year.

Summer school pay

The board also took action to raise the pay for teachers of academic summer school classes in 2021 to $30 per hour, from $22 an hour.

“Obviously teachers have worked really hard this year. And we’re really impressed with that with what they’ve done,” said Glasbrenner. “But there may need to be some added incentive to get them to be here during the summer as well.”

Other items

The board also reviewed round two of River Valley School District Endowment Fund grants awarded to teachers during the “COVID-19 Relief Matching Grant” Initiative.

The board also took the following action on Policy Committee recommendations:

  • They approved various policy changes for a second reading including policies that shorten the required direct exposure COVID-19 quarantine for students and staff from 14 days to 10, streamline the process to remove Internet filters on district electronic equipment, clean up facilities maintenance language, outline new ‘Building and Grounds Inspection Procedures’.
  • Discussed and recommended to the board for a first reading policies that accomplished goal setting through a multi-year strategic plan, strengthened staff involvement in board decision making, and clarified student activity fund management and disposition.
A video recording of the Feb. 11 school board meeting is available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMkcXCln2JQ. Board meetings are streamed live and can be viewed on the ‘River Valley School District’ YouTube channel.