May 20—A few Manhattan residents recited Bible verses as they expressed their concerns to Manhattan-Ogden school board members about a recently approved, and later withdrawn, purchase of educator training sessions on systemic racism and white privilege.
About 60 people attended the board meeting Wednesday, the vast majority of them only staying for public comment. Nine people shared their thoughts on why they felt a series of seminars on culturally-responsive teaching and learning from educational consulting company BetterLesson would lead to teachers imparting ideologies of critical race theory onto children. Critical race theory is an academic concept which explores how systemic racism shaped U.S. laws and how non-white people are impacted by those laws.
Board members approved buying virtual training curriculum during their meeting April 21. The total budget for this item was set at $61,500. District officials later rescinded the purchase during the May 5 board meeting because the money slated for the purchase couldn't be used in that fashion. Board president Jurdene Coleman said she and other members recently received emails from people who felt there was a lack of transparency with the original purchase.
Board member Curt Herrman said he was "kind of disappointed" in members of the Riley County Republican Party for placing a statement about the purchase in its newsletter on May 16. Herrman said the newsletter statement made false claims about the training program and the purchase itself, but he did not elaborate further on the content of the newsletter.
The letter states the local party's worry about the school board "spending scarce resources on factually inaccurate and inflammatory social justice indoctrination of our children."
John Matta, former Manhattan city commissioner, told board members he spoke with a local teacher about the training seminars. He said he agreed with the teacher's assessment that the BetterLesson programs consisted of critical race theory training.
"This type of training doesn't work, and in fact creates bias," Matta said. "It reinforces the idea of categories (for people)."
Matta said while he and others weren't opposed to expanding education on diversity, equity and inclusion, he would instead want to see a training program based on "humanization, gratitude and optimism."
Carmen Schober said she was concerned about the board's attempt to implement the training, and that, as the granddaughter of Cuban immigrants, she is more than familiar with equity and inclusion rhetoric.
"This theory takes a critical lens to marginalized groups," Schober said. "For this reason, it's a very useful political weapon, but offers no value for people who want to address real issues."
The BetterLesson virtual training sessions focus on identifying systemic racism in schools, defining concepts such as implicit bias and privilege, and exploring culturally responsive teaching methods. Participating educators also get one-on-one coaching throughout the school year. Coleman said as a board member, it is exhausting to receive "degrading" messages from community members claiming the board is trying to "replace the moral compass of families."
"There are claims that we're going against God," Coleman said. "Claims that we're wasting money or claims that we do not have 'those problems' here."
Coleman said district officials have tip-toed around USD 383's negative data regarding the under-representation of students of color in advanced placement courses, or the disparities between graduation rates for students of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. She said she did not have a sense of how the district would proceed. District officials have not yet responded to the Mercury's request for comment.
Valley Scharping brought a copy of the Bible with him as he addressed board members. He said kids should not be indoctrinated into thinking they have race-based bias or privilege.
"Power imbalance is not the root of injustice, sin is," Scharping said. "Education is for teaching the God-given truth, and in reality this kind of program introduces racism into the teaching system."
Board member Katrina Lewison said the board has a responsibility to work to create a district climate that values diverse thinking, mutual respect and teamwork, and to equip teachers with training to have more difficult cultural conversations.
"I've heard several people say we should judge people based on the content of their character," Lewison said. "Great, but we must recognize the diversity in our backgrounds, and our unintentional biases."
Herrman said he did not appreciate the judgmental tone from some residents who implied there was something illegal about the motion to approve the original purchase in April. He said those notions are "completely false."
"To say we're sinners (because of this issue) is unconscionable," Herrman said.
Brian Willis posed a series of questions to board members as he stated his distrust of the BetterLesson programs.
"What's the end game here, division?" Willis said. "I always thought it was unity and trying to make things better. ... Frankly I expect better of you."
Board member Darell Edie said he appreciates public input, whether he agrees with it or not. Board member Brandy Santos said being on the school board transcends any political differences that members may have.
"We're trying to do the right thing, and whether we agree or not, I think our hearts are in it for the right reasons," Santos said.
Board vice president Kristin Brighton said she would want to see more data on the racial and socio-economic disparities between students and encouraged the public to stay engaged on this topic.
College and Career Academy
Later in the meeting, board members nominated Brighton to serve on a committee charged with exploring the potential for housing a college and career academy in the Manhattan High School East Campus building.
In partnership with Manhattan Area Technical College, the board initially discussed the idea last November. Since then, MATC received a planning grant to develop a proposal for a facility which would be co-managed with the district. MATC president Jim Genandt said an interlocal agreement between the technical college and the district would need to be written to determine policies and funding sources. At the same time, committee members will look at the east campus building as part of a space needs assessment.
"It's already set up for education," Genandt said. "I think there's a lot of ways we can use the existing layout effectively."
The current project timeline has the committee meeting from June through September, with final recommendations to be shared with board members this fall. The tentative goal is for the academy to open in late 2023. The proposed academy would exist to give high school seniors expanded career opportunities and preparation.
In other business, the board approved:
— A proposal for annual fire alarm inspection services by Tech Electronics of Topeka for $18,855.
— Granting permanent utility easements on both the east and west sides of Eugene Field Early Learning Center to the Manhattan city government as a donation.
— Buying new security systems for Oliver Brown Elementary and five other district buildings under construction or renovation from Tech Electronics for $80,562. Security systems are not covered by the 2018 bond issue; the district set aside $100,000 for security systems for these facilities.
— Buying a projector system for Ogden Elementary from Cytek Media Systems of Topeka for $17,261.
— A bid submitted by Kolde Construction of St. Marys for construction of concrete bleacher pads and site grading at both Anthony and Eisenhower middle schools for $98,665.
— Transferring $138,542 from the district Adult Basic Education fund to the MATC Adult Education Fund, as part of the partnership between the two educational entities.
— A final reading of the 2021-22 school year schedule.