SOMSD to Hire Consultant to Address Discrimination Suit

by The Village Green
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The South Orange-Maplewood School District will be hiring a consultant to address a complaint filed against the district by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

In October, OCR and the district entered into an agreement regarding the complaint which alleged that the district does not provide equal access for black students to participate in advanced and higher-level learning opportunities. (A second similar complaint, filed in October, has yet to reach resolution.)

As part of the agreement, the district agreed to hire a consultant to help determine whether SOMSD should consider revising or expanding eligibility and selection criteria for higher level classes; improve its outreach to parents and students; and consider whether it should make changes to its staff and administrative training.

At the Nov. 24 Board of Education meeting, Board members agreed to form a working committee — comprised solely of board members — to select the consultant. However, a broader-based task force, which could include teachers and community members as well as board members and administrative staff, will be formed to guide the work of the consultant once he or she is hired.

Board of Education President Beth Daugherty said that the district had met with OCR in October and had originally agreed to hire a consultant in November; however, she said that it quickly became clear that the district “needed time to hire the right consultant.”

The OCR granted the district’s request to extend the deadline for hiring to January 2015. Daugherty said that the plan now was to go to bid in early January and have a consultant recommended for approval at the BOE meeting at the end of the January.

Daugherty said that the district also requested from the state the ability to use competitive contracting to evaluate the services so that the district is not forced to make a decision based solely on the lowest bid.

The board then entered into a conversation about what the process should be going forward regarding input: should a task force be formed to select the consultant? guide the process? and if so what would be the composition of task force? Daugherty noted the importance that there be a “balanced task force.”

It was quickly agreed that there was neither the time nor need to create a task force for the selection of the consultant.

“Personally I feel that the administration and board can define that,” said board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad. “My thought of community involvement is once we have that consultant in place.” Board member Sandra Karriem agreed, saying that given the time constraints, putting together a task force to select the consultant wasn’t “time efficient.”

Board member Jeff Bennett said that he felt “it also matters what the consultant is charged with doing.” He said that both the complaints cited “discrimination” as a reason for the unequal access for students but Bennett said that other factors such as socioeconomic reasons and “differential rates of mobility” played a role in the achievement gap. He felt that the board should be “careful that other factors are not excluded.”

Board member Johanna Wright said that, beyond the district complying with a resolution, “we have to understand that this is about harm that has been done to African American students. Period…. That’s very upsetting.”

Wright said she was glad for the extension: “I’m glad that the board president said that we need to pull back and take a little more time because the person that was going to be recommended was done quickly and certainly was not the right person.” She added, “It is incumbent upon us a district that celebrates diversity but yet inside there’s some dark things going on.” Wright said that the district should engage and listen to teachers in the process.

Some board members expressed dismay that the board itself had not been consulted or informed about the district’s decision to voluntarily enter into a resolution agreement with the OCR as a result of the compliance review.

“The board knew nothing” about the agreement, said Daugherty, who said apparently board approval was not required.

Since last spring, the SOMA Parents of Students of African Descent had been expressing concern over the disparities in academic outcomes for black students and indicated that there was a possible ACLU complaint pending. District administration communicated with the ACLU representative over the summer to discuss cooperatively working toward solutions. In October, the board met with the ACLU, who informed them they were filing their complaint the next day.

“I’m very disturbed we didn’t learn about the [first] agreement until after,” said Karriem. “I think we should have been involved” because the decision has “big ramifications.” Karriem said that clearly, the district has not adequately addressed its achievement gap and that the complaints force it to “keep our eyes on this issue.”

BOE member Madhu Pai said she was “angry” the board wasn’t involved.

Daugherty said that regardless, “the status quo is not an option.”

Board member Bill Guadelli said that the difficulty was the “tension between the sense of urgency …  of students not adequately being served … and the dynamic of schools that they are slow to change and in many ways are impervious to change.”

Gaudelli noted that the board had been working over the last 3-5 years to resolve the achievement gap — in particular he cited de-leveling — but that “we know that it didn’t erase the achievement gap.” Gaudelli cautioned against the thinking that any recommendations outlined by the consultant could erase the gap overnight or even in a year’s time. However, he said that hiring the consultant was “certainly a step in the right direction.”

Daugherty was more positive, saying, “You’re never going to get rid of the achievement gap if you don’t address discrimination and that is one of the things we have control over… . We do control what happens when the students step in our doors.”

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