Diversity takes center stage at D153 meeting

The desire for a diverse workforce and culture among District 153 schools wasn’t on the agenda for the board’s Monday,  May 6, meeting, but it clearly was on the minds of both the board members and the audience.

After the usual housekeeping issues such as approval of previous minutes, the diversity question bubbled to the top when Kimmee Rodgers, a former teacher at Willow School, appealed to the board to make every effort to retain racial affinity groups at the schools in the face of looming financial belt-tightening.

“Racial affinity groups play a crucial role in creating a positive and inclusive environment for both educators and students,” she said. The groups create an atmosphere that is essential to recruiting and retaining teachers of color, she said. 

She closed by asking that the board create a policy statement in support of affinity groups.

Jenne Farley, another Homewood resident, then stepped to the microphone accompanied by several other residents whom Farley identified as “her posse.”

Farley said they had taken a survey and written a letter to the board following the April 8 board meeting where two recently terminated teachers of color had spoken of a hostile work environment. They presented a copy of the letter, signed by 24 community members, to the board.

While acknowledging that there could have been both a hostile work environment and legitimate reasons for the terminations, the letter urged the board to redouble its efforts to reverse what it called “disproportionate racial representation among teachers” at Willow school.

The letter also stressed the need to support teachers of color and to reevaluate Diversity Equity and Inclusion training.

District Superintendent Scott McAlister responded to the issue by saying that he had heard the concerns of both the staff and the parents. 

“These issues are very important to me,” he said. “I want to make this district a kinder and more welcoming place than when I took this job. Equity is important, and we will continue to work on it.” 

McAlister indicated that the district had made significant progress on diversity. Cautioning that he didn’t want the district to rest on its progress, he cited statistics that in 2016-17 the staff hiring rate was 19% minority; over the last three years, it was 39%.

Toward the end of the meeting, board member Deborah Havighorst made an impassioned statement about the board’s commitment to diversity.

She urged the residents to continue to send letters to the board so they could know what the community was thinking, and she stressed that the board is always trying to do better.

“There are times we get things right,” she said, “but afterward someone would ask ‘How can we do it better?’ Know that when we get things right, we are still trying. When we get things wrong, we are trying that much harder.”

In other actions, the board unanimously approved a two-year extension for the district’s auditors, WIPFLI; and an amended budget which showed an overall increase in fund revenues of $920,584 and an increase of expenditures of $602,080.

The board also approved the hiring of nine employees: Melanie Bagnola-Boehl, Brenda Banuelos, Joyce Ford, Amy Harjung, Leslie Powell, David McManus, Tamara Nestich, Nona Riedel and Brooke Sanders.

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