Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

South Orange-Maplewood Debates Board of Ed Member’s ‘Unicorn’ Comment

A comment made by a Board of Education member on Facebook yesterday went viral, as local residents took to discussing the comment on other Facebook groups and the Black Parents Workshop issued a public statement about the remark.

In a conversation related to the lack of diversity in the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s teaching staff, Board member Madhu Pai commented on the difficulty of attracting teachers of color and, in particular, male teachers of color.

Pai commented, “Also to help lend some perspective on the teaching staff — our teaching staff is approximately 19% teachers of color (using the numbers in the Sage report, which admittedly are 1.5 years old). This is slightly higher than the national average of teachers of color. There are simply not enough teachers of color and finding teachers who [are] men of color is like looking for a unicorn. Not that we are not trying…”

In a statement from the Black Parents Workshop, led by Walter Fields, Fields wrote, “How shameful that in 2017 in South Orange and Maplewood New Jersey we have a member of the Board of Education who reflects the sentiments of Chief Justice Roger Taney in that dreadful Court ruling [Plessy v. Ferguson]. Board member Pai plies excuses that echoes the White Citizens Councils of the 1950s. It’s no wonder there is a dearth of Black teachers in the South Orange-Maplewood School District and most Black children receive an inferior education compared to their white peers.” (See the Black Parents Workshop release below.)

Pai countered: “It is of great concern to me that a post I made attempting to provide context and data around teachers of color has led to a Public Relations statement assailing my motives and character. I fear actions like this will scare people off from engaging with each other, discourage uncomfortable discussions that we need to have as a community, and that the looming specter of negative media attention and litigation will continue to distract us from the critical work that needs to be done. I want to feel safe engaging publicly without being misrepresented in the media – and I want others to feel safe also.” (See Pai’s full statement below.)

In the Black Parents Workshop release, Fields cited information a statement by the Community Coalition on Race at the May 15 Board of Education meeting, bemoaning the fact that the percentage of teachers of color continues to lag far behind the percentage of students of color in the district.

Fields quoted the CCR as follows: “[T]hough the district continues to have as one of its goals to increase and maintain a diverse staff, and though the Coalition on Race has advocated this for many years, we have not seen much movement on increasing the number of teachers of color in our district, nor have enough robust efforts been made to retain the teachers of color we already have. We are aware that a Diversity Job Fair is scheduled for this spring but we are not satisfied that this is enough, especially given the district’s history with recruiting teachers of color.”

Village Green will post a story on the May 18 Diversity Job Fair and SOMSD recruitment efforts shortly.

See the Black Parents Workshop statement below.

Pai’s full statement:

As an elected official, I expect to receive feedback from those who are supportive of my efforts, and from those who are critical. I take the words of the Black Parents Workshop to heart in terms of their perceptions of my commitment and work toward promoting – and achieving – equity in our district. I hope that some of important steps that have been implemented during my tenure on the Board of Education – like passing the Access & Equity policy, implementing restorative practices, aligning budgets to need and anti-bias training for staff – speak to my commitment and work.

I personally feel it is my obligation as a Board member to be present and engaged with the community. This includes having a presence on social media, where more casual and ad hoc discussions take place. Sometimes I just read, and other times I provide information, updates, context or my personal opinions. I do not speak for the Board of Education as a body.

It is of great concern to me that a post I made attempting to provide context and data around teachers of color has led to a Public Relations statement assailing my motives and character. I fear actions like this will scare people off from engaging with each other, discourage uncomfortable discussions that we need to have as a community, and that the looming specter of negative media attention and litigation will continue to distract us from the critical work that needs to be done. I want to feel safe engaging publicly without being misrepresented in the media – and I want others to feel safe also.

My hope, for myself and for the community I was elected to serve, is that we can respect each other’s viewpoints, engage in healthy discourse and still be able to productively partner in the important work toward equity for all our students. I believe we model this on the Board of Education, and I hope that this incident does not negatively reflect on my colleagues. I’m disappointed that a press release is the response to what should be ongoing dialogue (and action) in service of our children. I’ve reached out to Mr. Fields as the representative of The Black Parents Workshop. At present, there is little interest on his part for partnership, but I remain hopeful that this will change. Ultimately, I believe we are committed to a common goal.

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