Equity training for leadership and board members at Stillwater Area Public Schools caused some heat March 25 when a board member questioned why the district was continuing to devote resources to a line of work that she said had not been proven to result in positive student academic outcomes.

“While I agree that equity work is important, we’ve spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars on this and the return isn’t there for our students, and I think we need to be careful about where we put our money,” said school board member Tina Riehle, who added that it was a matter of prioritization as she was “for academics, not against equity.”

The district recommitted itself to diversity and equity initiatives last summer after a group of SAPS alumni sent a letter to administration recounting issues they had faced as students in the district and asking that solutions be made for current and future students.

In response, SAPS began partnering last fall with Paula Forbes, an employee relations consultant who has legal experience in handling workplace and employee conflicts. It was Forbes’ equity initiative for SAPS leadership that prompted an hour of passionate response last Thursday.

“With the money that we’re spending right now in limited funding times and as we’re watching our enrollment numbers decline, our academic rates decrease, we’re going to continue to see more people choose other options and we can’t afford that,” said Riehle. “Equity is a very necessary thing. However, I believe that the approach we’re using is not the best approach for all of our students to grow academically.”

Riehle’s stance elicited a biting response from new board member Annie Porbeni, who said that work done now among those in district leadership would be felt down the line.

“The world is a small place. These children are not going to be in our district for the rest of their lives. They will work with people from all sorts of places,” Porebeni said. “We think [this equity initiative is] a waste? Unbelievable.”

The equity initiative being pursued by SAPS leadership looks first at the legal aspects of race and education generally before narrowing scope to district-specific history and what changes can be made either at the policy level or in the management sphere to promote equity throughout the district.

Forbes said that when addressing issues connected to race, many districts “don’t have a process that they know to follow” and that developing a critical response policy as Eastern Carver County Schools did recently can go a long way in resolving problems.

“It’s really helpful for you to be able to respond immediately to your community, take whatever actions that you need to take relative to the seriousness of the offense, and address it appropriately so both the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim are responded to equally the same way you would under your bullying policies,” Forbes told board members last Thursday. 

Board member Alison Sherman, who said she witnessed a number of “troubling” incidents over the past year, said the interest was due on the district’s large chunk of change spent in its “eliminating an entire administrative team.” 

“That was the investment made in buying out contracts and putting people on leave and hiring consultants,” she said. “There is a cost—investment—to rebuild after decisions like that are made, and I think that we owe it to our students and our staff and our community at large to rebuild on a solid foundation.”

The district brought on a new assistant superintendent in Jennifer Cherry and saw turnover of five of its seven school board seats last fall. SAPS also approved Malinda Lansfeldt for interim superintendent last summer.

Professional development training along the lines of what Forbes presented to board members is part of the district’s 2020-2023 Achievement & Integration (A&I) Plan, which lists among the district’s goals leadership training that leads to “culturally responsive learning environments.” SAPS is a voluntary participant in the state’s A&I program, which aims to reduce academic disparities that stem from a student’s racial or economic background.

But board member Riehle questioned whether there might be a more effective way to help students.

“The true way to close the gap and the true way to help every student get what they need is through literacy, it’s through academics,” she said. “The equity piece and all these other things shouldn’t be the main focus at this point because we’re not having those results from doing equity work first, thinking we’re going to have the byproduct of academic achievement.”

Riehle said her critique of the initiative came from a place of budgeting with limited dollars, averring that the equity work begun in 2016 had yet to pay off for students and that continuing to prioritize it over other programs  with “actual academic outcomes” would put future enrollment—and funding—in jeopardy.

SAPS is projected to lose about 300 of its students this academic year, a 3.2 percent decline that is in line with other public school districts in the state, which averaged declines in enrollment of 2 percent, according to enrollment data released by the Minnesota Department of Education in February.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student achievement is not yet put to numbers for SAPS, although Lansfeldt said that she expects to have the past year’s academic outcomes prior to the school board meeting again next month.

“It’s part of a balancing act,” said Lansfeldt. “That with equity comes academics.”

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