8 days, 3 questions and 13+ months: talking about the state of ECCS

(This post was originally posted on Brick City Blog on October 28, 2019)

The vote on the Eastern Carver County School District referendum is in 8 days — on November 5. There are three questions on the referendum:

Question 1 increases the district’s operating levy — the funds used for the everyday operations of the district: salaries, supplies, transportation, etc.

Question 2 is a capital levy that would build a new elementary school, perform deferred maintenance projects, and acquire a new bus garage.

Question 3 is a continuation of the security and technology levy originally passed in 2013.

For more on the referendum itself, see the district’s webpage. Review the information and cast an informed vote. After carefully reviewing the information — and despite my misgivings about how school leadership has handled some issues (more on that below) — I have come to a “Vote Yes” position.

But I’d like to talk more about how the discussion around the referendum and equity have evolved over the last few months.

For the first time in recent history, this referendum has faced an organized “Vote No” campaign. If you’re a parent in the district, you received an e-mail from this group “Parents for D112” on October 14.

Similar groups, such as the “Eastern Carver County Schools Watchdogs”, have been operating for months, and they have aligned with partisan groups like the Carver County GOP and Carver County Conservative PAC as well as agenda-driven news sources like Alpha News and blogs like the Deplorable Housewives of the Midwest to spread a consistent message of misinformation and division in their efforts to undermine the referendum and work on equity. Their campaign is slick and apparently well-funded.

Let’s briefly address their address two of their equity-related arguments:

Argument #1: Equity work is really just a cover for Islamic indoctrination.

Not true. For starters, schools are covered by extensive federal and state laws prohibiting promotion of any particular religion. Secondly, we don’t need to take anyone’s word for it. We can look at the equity work the district has done. We can look at the full report from the equity audit performed by “Vote No”‘s favorite boogeyman, Dr. Muhammad Khalifa.

None of the work done by the district or its contractors to this point displays any favoritism or promotion of Islam, or any religion for that matter.

Argument #2: Equity work is really just a way to hold different races to different standards.

Not true. “Vote No” groups point to examples of other districts that they believe have lessened academic rigor or changed discipline policies in order to hold different races — specifically blacks and Latinos — to a different standard than white students. But, again, we don’t need to look at other districts. We have the work being done in our district.

The equity audit points to a need for our district to raise — not lower — standards and academic expectations for minority students. The equity audit also suggested no changes to our district’s discipline policies.

This is precisely the sort of “equality not equity” that the “Vote No” groups claim to endorse, yet they are fighting this work tooth-and-nail.

Why is this the case?

It’s been nearly thirteen and one-half months since the first of many highly publicized racial incidents during the 2018-19 school year in our district: when three Chaska High School students wore blackface to a football game. While some have focused on whether or not this event was overblown, what it clearly foreshadowed was that the district was not equipped to handle these sorts of incidents — a pattern of dropping the ball that continued through the every one of the long string of racist events that followed last year.

In December 2018 (after another racial incident that was mishandled, this one at Chaska Middle School East), parents began showing up at school board meetings to criticize the district for their failure to take these events seriously and to treat racism as a real problem.

These parents were there in January, too. And February. And March. And April. And May.

You know who wasn’t at those meetings? Any of the people leading the “Vote No” campaign today. Alpha News wasn’t there to cover those meetings. None of those people made YouTube videos decrying the racism directed at black children in our schools.

It wasn’t until June that these “Vote No” folks parachuted on to the scene. They only showed up to protest the fact that the district hired Dr. Khalifa to perform the equity survey.

The reality is that many of the people behind this “Vote No” effort aren’t residents of the district. And to be frank, some have long histories of targeting Muslims or promoting conspiracy theories.

Like here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. (I could go on, but you get the idea.) OK, two more — the parent video that “Parents for D112” promotes is done by a guy who claims to be a member/supporter of conspiracy-minded group QAnon. (At least this guy lives in the district!) And last week, there was a blog post that claimed that all this equity work in the district was part of a sinister plot financed and masterminded by George Soros.

Here’s how Alpha News advertised their “Eastern Carver County Schools Exposed” video:

Screen capture of Alpha News video, as taken from the Carver County Conservative PAC page.

This is nothing more than an appeal to prejudice against Muslims. What other explanation could there be for advertising this video using a shot of a woman in a burka?

That’s par for the course for Alpha News, though. One need only look through their archives to see how they’ve handled issues of race and religion in the past. Here, for instance, are the stories filed by a now-Chanhassen City Council member (and State Senate candidate) while she worked there.

The “Vote No” folks have had nothing to say to the victims of racism in our schools, other than to accuse them of trying to make a quick buck out of it, all while trying to cash in on it themselves.

Screen capture of a Facebook comment by the Chair of the Carver County GOP on a Chaska Herald article
Letter from the Carver County GOP fundraising off of their opposition to equity work and the referendum.

I got involved in the equity work more deeply because of an experience I had earlier this year. This conversation opened my eyes, and led to many other conversations that showed me that the problem didn’t just emerge this year, but had been simmering for a long time.

In April, I sat at a meeting organized by the school district to discuss equity issues where minutes after district leadership promised transparency on equity issues, two black girls sitting at my table passed around their phones showing us the “Negro Hill” image which had been circulating for days but had not yet been communicated by the district. I was appalled and angry and embarrassed. But what really broke my heart was the reaction of the girls, who — while upset — seemed sadly resigned to this sort of thing as a regular part of life in our schools. They didn’t trust that the leaders at the school would stand up for them because they had been let down before. No one should have to feel that way at Chaska High School or anywhere else.

Breaking Points: Jim Bach and ROAR

The people I’ve come to know and work with on these efforts — district employees and citizens alike — aren’t the least bit interested in indoctrinating anyone’s child into a particular religious belief. Nobody is looking to give children of a particular race a free pass to not do their school work or asking for children not to be disciplined if they do something wrong. I’ve talked to leaders at multiple schools in the district and in the administration office. They say that none of the leaders of the “Vote No” movement have come to their schools to meet and see what is really going on in our schools.

I’ve talked to parents of children who were targeted in the incidents last school year. Their experiences are real. Their pain is real. It’s no longer acceptable for our district to compound the damage of the incident itself with insensitivity and disregard in how it responds. It’s also no longer acceptable for the rest of us to ignore this reality.

All we’re asking is for a district that truly values every student equally, and consistently responds with care, compassion, and justice when children are targeted by others.

If I saw evidence that this work was leading us down the paths the “Vote No” group suggests, I wouldn’t support it. But I don’t see it. And I’ve certainly got a better view on what’s happening in my child’s school than folks from North Oaks or Norseland or Anoka or St. Louis Park or Prior Lake. Those folks aren’t going to be around once this vote is done — they’ll be on to the next perceived outrage — but the rest of us will have to live with what comes in its wake.

There are areas where I could find common ground with the “Vote No” folks. With my group Even Better Carver County Schools, we’ve been trying to push reform in how the district operates for the last two years. We’ve pushed for real transparency, and to have them stop measuring effort and instead focus on measuring results. We’ve pushed for better leadership on personalized learning and Empower. We’ve questioned why test scores are declining and achievement gaps are not closing. We’ve said that the school board isn’t doing enough to hold the leadership team accountable for all of the above. (Other groups, like the Concerned Citizens for Eastern Carver County Schools, have been working on this as well.)

(The “Vote No” people haven’t been there for those fights, either, sadly.)

And while I disagree with the “Vote No” conclusion on whether a new elementary school is necessary, there is no doubt the district has been inconsistent in how it has reported and explained trends in enrollment and capacity in recent years. They’ve created confusion where none should exist.

And yes, the idea that 5th grade band should be on the chopping block should the referendum fail is ridiculous. The cost-cutting ideas proposed by the district need to be dragged back to the drawing board and completely redone, if they are needed.

The “Vote No” group rightfully chafes at the district’s change in policy to limit the public forum at school board meetings to 45 minutes. For a district that goes out of its way to manage public feedback and control the message in every forum, this is a bad look — and it prevents the board from hearing publicly from its constituents at a time when it needs to hear it the most.

But it’s hard to get to common ground when folks choose to lead with misinformation and scare tactics. Hopefully, after the referendum is over, we can cool the temperature down and get back to the real work of making our schools Even Better.

That’s what this work is all about — and has always been about. Empowering teachers to do their best work every day. Ensuring that parents, students, and teachers have technology that makes tracking progress easier, not harder. Changing the mindset of the district to one that seeks feedback on a more timely basis and then having a predisposition to fix problems and not just wait to see if they go away. Closing achievement gaps and raising academic performance across the board. And, yes, making sure those girls I talked with last spring — and all students in this district — feel valued, welcomed, and supported in their own schools.

Whether you are “Vote Yes” or “Vote No” on Election Day, I hope you’ll be there after the referendum to do this work. We need all hands on deck, and a more united community to make our schools better for all students.



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