Equity, transgender policy dominate School Board meeting

Tuesday night’s meeting of the Pulaski County School Board attracted another large crowd, mostly in attendance to speak out on the school system’s new Equity plan and concerns over an upcoming policy on the treatment of transgender students.

Like last month’s meeting, the public comment period Tuesday was preceded by a statement by School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers, followed by statements by each school board member.

Siers reported that since last month’s meeting, the school system had received three Freedom of Information Act requests for “pretty much everything to do with our work on equity.”

Siers said the requests resulted in gathering hundreds of email exchanges, presentation materials, meeting agendas and handouts.

“It’s probable some of the information from these requests will make their way into the public discourse perhaps even this evening as soundbites used to make a point without the proper context,” Siers said.

Siers provided “a few points of context to consider should you begin hearing about information obtained through this request.”

“There was disagreement between school board members and the superintendent about how best to proceed with our equity work,” Siers said, adding there was also disagreement between the school system and the state Department of Education on how to proceed with equity work.

People involved in these conversations, Siers said, were frustrated at various times during the process.

Siers said what the information shows is that the equity work is not an initiative that was just “rubber stamped” by the school board, and that there was “much thought and debate that went into every step.”

“In the end the division has a plan that will hopefully make each child feel a sense of belonging and help them to develop the belief that they can be successful in school and in life,” Siers said.

Noting there had been several productive conversations with people from the community and church leaders about the equity work, Siers said, “We will attempt in the coming weeks to continue these conversations about how we can move forward together to address our discipline and achievement disparities.”

Siers said the issues around the policies for the treatment of transgender students are “a matter of law and the only remaining decisions involve how best to incorporate these laws into Pulaski County Public Schools.”

Siers said the school system’s policy would be presented in June. Following that he said school officials will “hear comments, make provisions if necessary and allowable and put the policy up for a final vote in August.”

Moving forward, Siers said, “We cannot be the Facebook police and can’t address every piece of misinformation that is out there.”

“However, we will attempt to answer questions, address concerns and better communicate our work. What we need in return is for our community to work with us, and not automatically oppose the things we are required by law to address. Every single school board across the state is trying to figure out how to make this work for their communities. Some are doing so with strong community support. Some have opposition who approach them with possible solutions. Some have opposition that understand that the issues that make them angry are those that are required by state law and not the school board, and some just have an enraged public that has frightened its students and embarrassed many who live there.

While nobody who has been paying attention expects Pulaski County to be one to move forward with strong community support, the second or third option would be a great improvement over where we went last month,” Siers said.

Vice Chairman Dr. Paige Cash made a presentation to answer a question she said a lot of people in the community had asked – “Why do we need an equity plan?”

Cash said the school board has “guidance and mandates” from the state department of education, and the board has known changes were coming for over a year.”

She said the board started looking at inequities that it needed to address.

She said there are several changes coming, mostly involving teacher training along with revisions to SOLs that teachers and students will be responsible for, but “right now we don’t know what those are.”

Cash quoted data from the Legal Aid Justice Center showing that in 2016 in Pulaski County, African American students were 2 to 4 times more likely to receive a disciplinary referral or get suspended. Those rates for special education students were even higher.

She said when the report and resulting news coverage came out in 2016, “I was horrified.”

“I expected a firestorm of criticism on how the school system was treating these students,” she said. “And there was nothing.”

She said school officials did start addressing the situation in 2019 using restorative practices “where we don’t suspend but try to show the individual how their actions harmed the community as a whole.”

Cash said statistics in that area have improved.

She displayed English reading SOL test scores for 2019, the last year tests were given. The figures showed a 74 percent pass rate for the school system overall.

“That’s not bad,” Cash said. “That’s not terrible.”

The display showed that economically disadvantaged students had a 64 percent pass rate, meaning 36 percent of those students “did not pass,” Cash stated. “That’s a lot of kids.”

“Sixty-some percent of students received free and reduced-price lunch at the time – black and white – and 36 percent of those students did not pass,” she added.

Hispanic students and multiple-race students both had 62 percent pass rates, and African American students had a 54 percent pass rate.

“Forty-six percent did not pass their SOL,” Cash said.

Students with disabilities had a 31 percent pass rate.

“That’s a lot of kids,” she repeated.

“I look at this and this is not okay. You all should not be okay with this,” Cash said to the audience.

“This is what we’re trying to fix,” she said.

Cash compared the difference in equality and equity using school backpack programs as an example.

She said equality is when a backpack is sent home with every student, while equity means a backpack is sent home with every student who needs it.

She said in the classroom, equity works the same way.

“Equity is support that comes in many ways like tutoring and mentoring,” she said. “Sometimes students in these groups don’t feel they belong in school. They don’t feel welcome, and they feel like all the other students get all the attention. Because they have told us this,” Cash said.

“That is also not okay with me,” she added.

“They don’t feel smart enough in some ways to be in school, therefore they do not succeed,” she said.

“So, when I hear opposition to equity, what I hear is we don’t care about these students, and that is the message the students hear as well,” Cash stated.

“Maybe you don’t intend for them to hear that message, but that is the message they hear.”

She said the equity mission “is not about indoctrinating kids in some leftist agenda. This is not about Critical Race Theory. It’s not about Marxism. It’s not about telling white children they are racist and oppressors. It’s not about taking resources away from students and giving it to others. It is about making the resources work for these students.”

“This board, the superintendent, the teachers sitting here, the administrators sitting here and the support staff sitting here care about those students, and they care about narrowing those achievement gaps. That’s what this is about,” Cash said, noting she fears the gaps have gotten even bigger since the pandemic.

She said school officials want the community to help them make sure students feel like they belong.

“If you don’t want to do that, that’s fine. We’re going to do it anyway. But you need to understand what we’re doing here. It’s not about indoctrinating kids, its about making them successful Pulaski County citizens,” she closed.

Massie District representative Becki Cox explained to the audience the role of the school board as it relates to enforcing policies handed down by the state.

“We can make small policy decisions, but those policies are handed down to us from other authorities in this Commonwealth,” she said. There is a long list, Cox said, of the things the school board is told by the state and federal governments it must do.

She wondered how many in the room had paid attention to the House and Senate bills relating to the treatment of transgender students as they made their way through the Virginia General Assembly.

“Were you paying attention to those, because those are the bills we are now given to do something with. If you weren’t paying attention, why were you not paying attention to the General Assembly and to Congress? Did you think when it came down to the five of us (school board) we could stop it? I wish I had that much power,” Cox said.

“So, my word to the many of you who have displeasures, is to be careful what you send to Richmond and D.C. to represent us as their laws flow back down to local elected bodies to implement. I ask that you put your passion into influencing those in your legislative bodies.”

Cloyd District representative Bill Benson noted that school board members have been accused of making “back-door or back-room decisions” for our students. “We don’t do that,” he said.

Saying he believes citizens would be hard-pressed to say board members aren’t doing the best they can do for county students.

Benson said he was very disappointed in what he heard at the last school board meeting during comments about transgender policy and equity.

Penny Golden, Ingles District representative said she as a parent understands the passion, fear and the unknown of what we’re facing.

“It’s a daunting task we have been given. I just ask for your guidance and help. We don’t need to fight and push this away. “It’s all about the kids, all of them. What we’re up to is unprecedented for us,” she said.

“We need you to talk with us, not at us,” Golden said, noting she and some of the high school students who were present for the last meeting were shocked at some of the things they heard.

School Board Chairman Tim Hurst addressed concerns he said were raised at the last meeting and referred to a list of frequently asked questions and school responses given out to attendees prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

Hurst spoke of the number of student events board members and Siers had attended in support of students.

He addressed safety concerns, noting the number of video cameras in the schools had been increased by 50 percent to improve safety measures in the schools. There have been State Police safety audits. School resource officers are now stationed at every county school. He said Pulaski County Middle School has some of the most up to date safety features of any school in Virginia. He said the principal at PCMS could lock the entire school down with the push of a button in her office.

“The safety of Pulaski County kids is our highest priority.  There’s nothing more important. When I see a post online that says the clergy and faith-based community are fighting for your kids’ safety, I question that. Do you believe Pulaski County Schools is not fighting for your kids’ safety? Do you really believe that,” Hurst asked.

“Members of this board are part of that faith-based community, and we think of these kids seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Hurst stated.

He added that Pulaski County citizens have no control over what is handed down from Richmond or Washington, but they can control how we will act.

“We can be civil with each other and treat each other with respect.

“As for the treatment of transgender students, we will respect and protect the rights of all students. We will respect and protect the privacy of all students for a safe learning environment,” Hurst said.