BY STEVEN JUPITER
FORESTDALE—The Otter Valley Unified Union School Board met at the Neshobe Elementary School in Forestdale on Wednesday, December 21, 2022, to discuss next steps after the completion of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union’s district-wide equity audit, and to begin planning the budget for fiscal year 2024.
After some introductory remarks from RNESU Superintendent Kristin Hubert and OVUU Board Chair Laurie Bertrand, the floor was turned over to Tyler Weideman, RNESU’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Weideman led the Board through a PowerPoint presentation that outlined the key findings of the district’s equity audit, its recommendations, and the planning process to implement those recommendations.
The equity audit was commissioned last spring by RNESU and conducted by Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium (MAEC), an independent consultant based in Bethesda, Maryland. According to MAEC’s website, the purpose of an equity audit is to examine “policies, programs, and practices that directly or indirectly impact students or staff relative to their race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, color, disability, age, sexual orientation, sexual identity, religion, or other socio-culturally significant factors.”
Though the results of the audit have been reviewed by RNESU, they have not yet been released to the OVUU Board or other members of the community. Release of the audit to the
Mr. Weideman, in his PowerPoint presentation, laid out three “key findings” of the audit:
- “Based on the analysis of district discipline and achievement data, there appears to be disproportionality on the basis of race [and] socio-economic status…”
- Both the climate survey and the focus groups revealed an unsafe climate for minoritized youth in middle and high school, specifically for LGBTQIA+ students.”
- “Focus groups provided evidence of implicit bias, a lack of cultural understanding, and discomfort across the district when dealing with differences based on social identity.”
The audit offered six “recommendations” for action:
- “Create a district-wide taskforce committed to examining equity and climate issues.”
- “Appoint an Equity Officer in each school responsible for promoting equity and diversity throughout the school.”
- “Develop a district equity and diversity strategic plan.”
- “Offer in-depth and ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers, administrators, students, and the district-wide equity taskforce.”
- “Conduct periodic community forums with parents and other stakeholders.”
- “Recruit and develop a team responsible for data oversight for the district.”
Weidman also laid out a three-step planning process:
- In June 2022, administrators in the central office received the results of the audit.
- During summer 2022, district principals and central office administrators reviewed the results.
- In fall of 2022, key findings of the audit were shared with appropriate district staff.
- In fall of 2022, building administrators developed Equity Action Steps.
- In November 2022, Equity Action Plan was drafted.
- During winter 2022/2023, the Equity Action Plan will be shared with school and central office administrators, RNESU staff, school boards, and the community.
- The Equity Action Plan will be implemented in spring and summer of 2023.
- All licensed faculty will participate in Inclusive Teaching & Learning training.
- There will be ongoing partnerships with outside organizations, such as Outright Vermont, Up for Learning, and NAACP.
- All administrators will participate in training called Leading Equitable Schools, offered by the Center for Educational Leadership.
- There will be monthly meetings of the Student Advisory Committee and the Parent Advisory Committee.
- There will be monthly webinars and community engagement opportunities.
- “Restorative practices” will be implemented.
- An equity mini-grant will allow for the creation of multicultural book bundles and curriculum.
After the presentation, a conversation ensued among OVUU Board members and RNESU administrators as to the definitions of certain terms, such as “implicit bias,” and whether the audit even addressed the appropriate issues.
Board member Erik Pearsons expressed dismay that the audit seemed to indicate that students at OV were being treated unfairly on the basis of family income. Susannah White, RNESU’s Equity Engagement Coach, explained that much of what Pearsons was referring to was “implicit bias” and not active mistreatment. The difference between “implicit bias” and “prejudice,” White continued, is that the former is a subconscious reaction while the latter is action explicitly undertaken because of those biases.
Superintendent Hubert clarified that the audit did not show that teachers or administrators at OV were knowingly discriminating against students based on income but rather that students from different economic backgrounds seem to experience disparate disciplinary treatment. For example, the survey reported an instance where two students from different economic backgrounds, using participation in the free-and-reduced-lunch program as a measure, received different disciplinary actions for similar behavior. The student in the program was given a 3-day suspension while the other student was given a warning.
Both Hubert and White emphasized that the audit was simply a starting point for a conversation about these issues.
Board member Kevin Thornton pressed the RNESU administrators present to explain why the OVUU Board had not been privy to the audit’s raw findings. Superintendent Hubert explained that the 280-page report had to be reviewed before it was shared with the community. Mr. Thornton expressed concern that the audit seemed intentionally designed to draw specific conclusions about race, gender, and sexuality while downplaying economic inequities, which he identified as a more pressing concern at OV.
Thornton also cautioned RNESU that the audit seemed designed to assign blame for “harms of the past” on certain groups. “This system of addressing these problems will lead to worse problems,” he said. “How many of the 75 books [in the multicultural bundles] are about poverty instead of gender and sexuality?” He warned that focusing on the latter at the expense of the former “would be a disaster.”
“We’re instituting Kommissars in our schools that will be mandating books and telling teachers what to teach,” he said, alluding to propaganda officers in former Soviet Bloc countries.
Parent Samantha Stone, who was attending the meeting with her son, Luca Cifone, a recent OV grad, noted that her children had had felt unsafe at Otter Valley and questioned whether Mr. Thornton could empathize if his own child hadn’t had similar experiences there.
In later conversation, Stone and Cifone expressed frustration that the former administration at OV seemed unable to address the hostile environment that marginalized students experienced at the school. Cifone, who identifies as LGBTQIA+, stated that he and most of his friends left OV because of explicit acts of violence and hostility. Cifone completed high school at home while many of his friends went to the tech centers in Rutland and Middlebury.
“School was unsafe,” Cifone said.
“An equity audit is a great first step,” said Stone. “But the words we use, like ‘implicit bias,’ seem to be spiking people. Let’s figure out how we need to talk about this so we bring people to the table rather than turn them off. We’re just trying to make kids feel safe.”
Mr. Thornton, in a subsequent e-mail, reiterated his skepticism about the design of the audit. “The audit itself was both structurally flawed and deeply biased—in other words, it appears to have been designed to lead to a set of predetermined conclusions,” he wrote. “I raised concerns about this over a year ago that have never been addressed.”
“It’s foolish for the RNESU administration to create yet another bureaucratic superstructure at a time when we’ve got major concerns about paying for basic educational needs,” he added.
The next stage in the audit process will be to share the plan with the school boards and the community. Superintendent Hubert stated that a draft is being prepared. A parental advisory group has been formed for those who would like to be involved.
The board was then addressed by Brenda Fleming, RNESU Director of Business & Finance. Fleming updated the board on the purchase and operation of modular units at OVUHS, Otter Creek Academy (OCA), and Neshobe School. The unit at OCA will likely be completed over the holiday break and the unit at Neshobe will likely be ready for use in February. The RNESU Board has set aside $450,000 for a modular unit at OVUHS.
Ms. Fleming also led the board through an update on the budget, which is scheduled for a vote in January. She had done a preliminary equalized tax rate before CLA (Common Rate of Appraisal). According to Fleming, the unified tax rate before CLA is $1.208, down from $1.278, representing a 7-cent tax decrease. This is expected to manifest in lower property taxes in 2024, making the current year more attractive for larger capital expenditures.
The board also discussed the use of the Burditt and Ely funds, which were established to benefit Pittsford and Neshobe, respectively. According to Board Chair Laurie Bertrand, the Burditt fund is still healthy but the Ely fund will likely be depleted within six years at current rates of withdrawal. It was suggested by the manager of the fund that it be allowed to replenish.
The board will vote on the budget at the next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, January 4, 2023 at OVUHS.