School board ponders equity issues, amid criticism

Other business included a resolution affecting the superintendent’s power to make emergency decisions

At a school board meeting last Thursday, equity issues dominated, kicked off in part by a public comment from Comunidad Latina de Vashon that said the group’s request to co-create a tutoring program and new staff hires at the school had not been honored.

The meeting also included a discussion of the school’s racial equity policy and practices, enacted in 2017.

And there was also, coming late in the meeting under the banner of “new business,” a brief discussion of an idea to change the school’s mascot — a pirate — to a more culturally sensitive one.

Additionally, the board also passed a resolution that allows its superintendent, Slade McSheehy, to bypass board policies in making emergency decisions pertaining to the reopening of school in order to adhere to state guidelines.

The entire board meeting — which also included discussion on reopening committees, plans for limited outdoor learning and a financial report, can be viewed on the school’s YouTube site. The next board meeting will be held on Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. on Zoom, with the link posted at vashonsd.org.

Comunidad Latina sends a message

Early in the Sept. 24 meeting, McSheehy read aloud a public comment from Comunidad Latina de Vashon (CLV), a grassroots group that serves Vashon’s Latino community and has repeatedly offered to help lead programs to bring greater equity to Latino students in the schools.

The group advocated for the formation of VISD’s full-day bilingual preschool program, and in the past two years has strenuously objected to cuts proposed to that program by McSheehy’s administration. Recently, the group won a $30,000 grant that is earmarked to go to support the preschool.

With the announcement that Vashon’s schools would take place online in the fall, CLV again mobilized to request equity supports for the Latino community and offer their expertise in the development of such programs.

On Sept. 10, the group sent a detailed letter to McSheehy requesting to be involved in the formation of a tutoring program for Latino students and to also have a lead role in creating the job description and hiring process for a Latino community liaison at Vashon High School and McMurray Middle School.

But last week, the district finalized its own plans for a bilingual tutoring program, run by Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), and sent out its own job descriptions for a part-time Latino community liaison and a part-time position to provide tech support to the Latino community.

In its public comment to the board, CLV said these decisions and actions had been made without their requested input.

“A sense of belonging is part of equity,” the group wrote, in part. “You say you hear us; the superintendent has said he wants to work from a stance of co-creation and shared power; we see you nodding your heads, but what appears to be listening is not followed with action. The community is tired of lip service and desires transparency and accountability in regards to how the district is spending its racial equity budget.”

In the board meeting, and in a follow-up email to The Beachcomber, McSheehy responded to CLV’s public comment.

He said he had sent CLV three emails in response to their letter requesting to help lead the hiring process and tutoring program — one email on Sept. 10, and two on Sept. 14 — but had not received a response from them. In the emails, he asked to set up a Zoom meeting or phone call with the group to follow up on the request, he said.

He added that he would continue to reach out to CLV’s leadership as well as work with them on a newly formed school task force convened to support Latino families. He said he had also invited CLV to be part of the process of interviewing candidates who apply for the newly created liaison and technical support positions.

McSheehy forwarded to The Beachcomber the brief emails he had sent. The first email did ask the group to be in touch “as soon as possible” but in that and the subsequent emails he did not indicate that he was thinking of moving forward quickly without the input of the group.

The Beachcomber also reached out to VYFS executive director Jeni Johnson, who said her agency had been contracted by McSheehy to create a bilingual drop-in tutoring program that will begin October 8 in the gym of Vashon High School from 2:30 to 4 p.m. on Thursdays and 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays.

The new VYFS program, called the Family Resource and Academic Support Center, will provide tech advice to boost internet connectivity as well as case-management for families needing mental health and financial supports.

Staffing will include the three members of the VYFS Latino Services team, Emilio Gonzalez, Sarah Sullivan and Miriam Garduño.

When told about CLV’s request to help create the tutoring program, Johnson said she was supportive of CLV and wished to collaborate with the group, but that McSheedy had not told her about the request and she did not know about CLV’s public comment to the board.

She said she was also unaware that CLV had contracted with Geeking Out Kids of Color (GOKiC) to provide support to Latino families needed technical support for online school last spring and again this fall.

CLV credits GOKiC with providing daily support for tech problems experienced by Latino families, from 8 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, and going beyond those hours in providing additional support and coaching with families. CLV has also partnered and paid for work the work of the mental health group, Puentes, to provide counseling and mental health supports to Latino students on Vashon.

Reached by the Beachcomber to respond to these developments, CLV provided a statement on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

“CLV is already doing the work that the newly posted job descriptions entail. CLV and our partners; GOKIC and Puentes and youth leaders have been working diligently with our Latino families to make sure that technology barriers and challenges are addressed and have provided tutoring support,” the statement said.

“We have been in contact with over 45 families and have spent over 400 hours with families who have had varied needs. We have helped ease family stress by walking with families in the many steps process to access to low-income internet programs, individual and group tech support and classes, connected families to VISD staff, and continue to support families as families adjust to the new platform, SewSaw. We do this through countless follow-ups and collaborative problem-solving. Families continue to ask us to translate homework and school messages. Frequent check-in with families let us know where families stand and what additional support they may need moving forward.

“We fear the school district does not understand how intensive ensuring the success of these steps truly is. It is one thing to talk about ‘working” or ‘connecting’ families, it is another altogether to ensure equal access to Latino families.

“CLV has been doing this type of work prior to COVID and will continue to do it because it’s what the community has asked and have participated in its co-creation.

“This is not about COVID and online learning problems, this is about systemic racism and the fact that we have been subsidizing the additional support that the school should be doing. The schools should be funding the services we offer. It is their institutional and legal duty to provide equal education and the moral duty of the school board to ensure our leadership honestly addresses institutional racism that has too long held our Latino youth back in the Vashon school district. Performative window dressing does not equate to real equity.

“We will continue holding the educational institution responsible because our Latino community feels that VISD is not providing the necessary support for their students to be successful. Families have been feeling neglected and pushed aside over decades.

“If the administration and school staff are ready to involve the community in a way that honors their experience and genuinely shares power, then we can start addressing the structural institutional barriers. We hope [they] choose these steps. Our families have excellent ideas for better systems that would benefit all working families, we hope we can reach a point of authentic co-creation so that all can benefit from shared power and a wealth of ideas.”

Superintendent gets extra powers

By a 3 to 1 vote, with Toby Holmes being the only dissenting vote, the board passed Resolution 786.

The resolution, provided by WSSDA (Washington State School Directors Association), gives the District Superintendent power to suspend board policies without a vote from the board, if necessary, to implement the school’s reopening plan in compliance with state guidelines.

The resolution drew fire in strongly-worded public comments earlier in the meeting.

Barb Rhoads-Weaver, a parent of district youth, suggested in her comment that board members should resign if they even considered delegating the Board’s authority to suspect or repeal their policies to McSheehy.

David Hackett, another district parent who is also a senior deputy prosecutor for King County, wrote a comment that contained his analysis that the measure might violate Washington’s law.

Board member Bob Hennessey, in response, said he had spoken to the executive director of WSSDA who told him the resolution had been reviewed and vetted by the state attorney general’s office.

In explaining his no vote, Holmes said that the resolution might well be good for larger districts, but that he could not imagine a circumstance where a quorum of Vashon’s school board could not be called to a meeting quickly.

The measure, now passed, is in effect through December 2020, and only deals with the opening of schools, McSheehy said. The board passed a similar and now-expired resolution, which McSheehy did not use, in the spring.

Equity policy to be reviewed

McSheehy opened up a discussion of the school’s 2017 racial equity policy, suggesting that he would encourage an update to the plan and that he would also like to hire a consultant to assist in this work or conduct what he called an “equity audit” of the school district.

He shared statistics that measured participation of different racial groups in academic courses, extracurriculars and sports, and said he was preparing more such metrics to evaluate racial equity.

But McSheehy also lamented a lack of funding for the school’s racial equity initiatives.

“Our district wasn’t designed to be a bilingual district,” he said. “So change is difficult because we’re also not funded.”

At the meeting, McSheehy did not mention a $50,000 donation recently received by VISD from an anonymous donor, to be earmarked for the school’s racial equity work over the course of the next two years.

But in response to a follow-up question from The Beachcomber, McSheehy detailed some possible plans for the money, which will be received in increments of $25,000 for the next two years.

He said that he anticipated that it would be used to help fund the new liaison positions as well as be put to other purposes including, possibly, a consultancy with Puget Sound Educational Service District to assist in strengthening VISD’s racial equity plan.

Curtains for the Pirate?

Responding to a letter from community activist Hilary Emmer that said that VHS’s pirate mascot is a symbol of oppression and lawlessness that should be replaced, the school board agreed to begin to explore the issue at their next meeting.

In her letter to the board, Emmer called pirates “lawless people who rob, destroy and attack.”

“They participated in the slave trade,” she wrote. “They were womanizers — rape and pillage come to mind. Is this what you really want the high school boys to attain to? What about the girls? Are girls just for the pleasure of the boys?”

Among board members, only Zabette Macomber voiced unequivocal support for Emmer’s proposal.


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