The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 16, 2022 1:00 am

Race theory creates division at NACS

Board bars staff from conference over fears of keynoter's opinion

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

For three Northwest Allen County Schools board members, fears about what a keynote speaker might say overpowered the administration's support of sending staff to a February conference about students' emotional well-being.

Even the acting superintendent's pleas for trust were largely ignored as board members expressed concerns about critical race theory.

Monday's split vote denying attendance at the Educating the Whole Child Summit could lead educators to question the board's confidence in them, an Indiana School Boards Association official said.

And a leader with the Indiana State Teachers Association said the erosion of trust in school employees could have larger ramifications about districts' ability to attract and retain talent.

Teachers, social workers, administrators and a guidance counselor asked to go to the Indiana School Mental Health Initiative event, which NACS employees have previously attended, district spokeswoman Lizette Downey said. Minutes from the Dec. 13 meeting – during which the topic was tabled – indicated five employees wanted to attend.

Requests from three other employees were approved Nov. 22. It was unclear last week whether their plans to attend have changed.

Two dozen breakout sessions are planned for the Feb. 23 summit, addressing topics including mental health, restorative practices and social emotional learning.

Sam DiPrimio, director of secondary education at NACS, told the five-member board the conference offers employees tools to help students with mental health – a topic the community has raised in recent months.

“This summit focuses on the emotional well-being of our students,” DiPrimio said, “and it focuses on providing our staff the training to be able to recognize and address the trauma that a lot of our kids deal with and the depression they deal with.”

Board members Liz Hathaway and Kristi Schlatter endorsed the professional development, but colleagues Ron Felger, Kent Somers and Steve Bartkus objected to this year's keynote speaker, Tim Wise. He is a prominent anti-racist writer and educator whose experience includes training professionals in various fields – including government, law enforcement, media and medicine – on methods for dismantling racial inequity in their institutions, according to his biography.

Felger summed up Wise's focuses as white privilege and white supremacy and asked why NACS would want to walk into “the critical race theory minefield.” He said the district needs to be careful.

“I've never believed in micromanaging, but I think this is kind of a politically charged time,” Felger said.

He wondered how he would defend the conference to taxpayers.

“Tacitly or not,” Felger said, “I think it seems like we're buying into, you know, things promoted by the keynote speaker.”

“I want to stay clear of this guy,” Somers said.

The event's website does not indicate what Wise plans to address in his keynote speech. It describes him as an internationally celebrated author, speaker and advocate.

DiPrimio stressed the conference isn't about critical race theory, and he repeatedly reiterated the summit's value for staff, as did Gloria Shamanoff, acting superintendent.

“The conference has opportunities for them to learn and grow, and that in turn then will be reciprocated for what we can do with our students here in the NACS family,” she said.

Schlatter said she would hate to see district employees miss the training opportunity. She shared titles of some breakout sessions, including “The Importance of Mental Health Supports for Medically Fragile Students” and “Incorporating Mental Health in Schools.”

“I would not have a problem talking to our taxpayers about benefits that, I think, far outweigh one speaker, possibly two, especially when our own social workers are asking for this opportunity,” Schlatter said, noting she trusts employees' judgment.

Bartkus was adamant that Wise's keynote address won't be good for NACS.

“I understand the kids, our students, are not hearing this, but it's the staff that's going to come back,” Bartkus said. “What they bring back to our students is what I'm afraid of. And it's what we're hearing on the news across our whole country, the things that students are being taught in public schools, and it's just not good.”

Of the almost 8,000 NACS students last academic year, 82.1% were white, 5.3% were multiracial, 4.9% were Asian, 4.8% were Hispanic and 2.6% were Black, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Shamanoff repeatedly urged board members to have faith in the district's professionals.

“I believe our social workers have proven to us from the daily work that they do with our children that we need to trust them that when they listen to a speaker that they know what to take and what to take back,” Shamanoff said.

The 3-2 vote denying the professional learning activity could affect trust between the board and district employees, said Steve Horton of the Indiana School Boards Association.

“If you put yourself in the position of teachers, you do have to question, 'Do the people governing the district trust us to make the kind of decisions we have to make?'” Horton said in a phone interview. “I think that's a very fair question.”

Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said trusting educators is becoming an issue for the profession.

“We need to recognize what barriers we are putting up that will cause folks to either leave a school district or leave the profession altogether or make a decision to never enter that profession,” Gambill said in a phone interview.

School employees statewide have choices about where they work, Gambill said, citing more than 700 openings on the Indiana Department of Education job board Wednesday.

NACS recently hosted a job fair seeking candidates for positions including instructional assistants, food service assistants, substitutes in all areas, bus drivers, custodial staff, buildings and grounds staff, technology staff, office staff, athletics coaches, lifeguards, swim instructors and teachers.

“Indiana has more than enough capable, bright, talented folks to provide our students a world-class education, Gambill said. “Sadly, we are starting to see impediments that are causing those folks to not enter the profession, and we are putting our students' education in jeopardy.”

Decisions about professional learning opportunities are best left to district personnel, Horton said, because board members generally aren't education professionals.

This NACS example also raises questions about who decides what employees can learn and what they shouldn't, Horton said. Keynote presentations are expected to be thought-provoking, he said, and listening to them doesn't necessarily indicate agreement.

“We have to be recognizing the importance of making sure we are treating our professionals as professionals and that they are getting the job done that they were hired to do,” Gambill said.

Horton previously served as a school board member and worked with the Ohio School Boards Association for more than eight years before joining the Indiana organization last month. He doesn't recall a situation where a board disallowed conference attendance based on an event's content.

“There are instances where boards can clearly overstep or overreach what their authority is really intended to be,” Horton said. “This is a clear case of overreach, as I look at it.”

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