After backlash, diversity coordinator stays in budget

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BRATTLEBORO — After receiving backlash from members of the community over a proposed cut that would have eliminated the diversity coordinator at Brattleboro Union High School, the School Board came back with a revised version that satisfied those concerned.

"It's a huge step to say you're wrong and we'll fix it," Alex Fischer, of Brattleboro, told the board during a special meeting Wednesday, where the budget was approved to go to voters next month.

The $24,591,000 budget is a 3.8 percent increase over last year.

"There was a lot of input [at the board meeting] on Monday night and it's appreciated," School Board Vice Chairman Bob Woodworth said. "We have to make a decision on this budget literally today and get it moving, and hopefully no one feels like an underhanded thing is getting run through quickly."

BUHS board member Michael Collier said he never met the diversity coordinator.

"I still don't know what the diversity coordinator does but I did some research," he said. "I think Burlington has a framework for culturally responsive teaching. Is that something we have?"

That kind of curricula is sought by the diversity coordinator and teachers, BUHS Principal Steve Perrin said. But the diversity coordinator also works with staff and students to develop an inclusive environment. Funded at $78,000 for fiscal year 2019, the position includes salary and benefits.

Luz Elena Morey, a parent from Brattleboro, said many people wanted to keep Mikaela Simms as diversity coordinator.

"I love Mikaela Simms' work!" Morey wrote to Principal Steve Perrin, in an email sent prior to Wednesday's meeting. "Over the last four years, I have seen her working very hard offering high-quality programs for students during Diversity Days. I have often been called in to offer programs and have been amazed at the caliber of presenters that Mikaela has put together and how smoothly things are managed — each year being better than the last."

During the meeting, Simms called the diversity program "a blessing for all our students. Because it doesn't have to be me," she said. "It could be someone else."

Morey said she has watched Simms "calmly, masterfully," working with students and helping to center those with "explosive emotions." She urged the school to hire a second diversity coordinator.

Morey's daughter, Lucia, is a senior at the high school.

"Our country right now is not doing so hot in terms of being a good country, at least in my eyes," Lucia said, adding that other countries are not perfect but many of their citizens recognize earlier racial transgressions. "We have the opportunity to be sane and to decide to take really drastic steps in owning what happened and bring people back into equality."

Mark Tully, from the Root Social Justice Center, said activists gathered at the meeting did not just come for "a one-time show of solidarity."

"This is our agenda," he said.

Sheila Linton, also from the Root Social Justice Center, asked school officials, "What are you willing to give up to help our marginalized students?"

"Those of you, who are administration, maybe you can consider in equity, what you need to survive," she added.

Brenda Siegel, founder of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, thanked the board for including the position.

"I've examined my privileges and understood where I was not acknowledging my unconscious bias," she said. "I believe it's important to continue to work on this issue."

Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, told the board its decision was "a great move."

Brattleboro Town School Board and Select Board member David Schoales called the initial proposal "the most tone-deaf budget cut imaginable."

"Recent state laws created this mess and now we are faced with the consequences — reduce the support we give our most vulnerable students," he wrote in an email. "What is important? Cut administrators and office staff who don't work with students?"

At a meeting Tuesday, Schoales blamed Act 46, the law that encouraged districts to consolidate.

"The reason the high school budget is up so much is because Act 46 included this provision that reduced the number of what's called 'phantom students,'" Schoales said, referring to a state education funding mechanism intended not to make schools suffer if they suddenly had a big fluctuation in the number of students attending.

Community members also worried about the PEAK program, which remains funded with three more positions being added via the budget and another one through federal grant money. But administrators are talking about changing the structure.

PEAK is an educational program in Brattleboro Area Middle School "offering unique, non-traditional experiences ... that empower students by developing academic and social skills," according to bams.wsesu.org. "This individual program works in a small classroom setting, which provides support, interdisciplinary curriculum and experiential learning opportunities."

BAMS Principal Keith Lyman said he has told staff their jobs could change and his vision is to create a model that will provide support to all students who need it.

"The money itself is in the budget and it's negotiable," he said. "I'm working administratively with my staff to utilize that money to most effectively help students."

The proposed budget falls below $17,816 per "equalized pupil," a figure that would trigger a tax penalty from the state. Instead, the budget calls for spending $17,447 per "equalized pupil." Weighted into the formula for "equalized pupils" are factors that evaluate poverty and ability to speak the English language.

To make all the numbers work, a full-time position at the Windham Regional Career Center will not be refilled once an employee leaves; a different deal was struck with a circus-arts program for about $16,000 of savings; and $61,000 was moved from a capital fund. A Latin program will continue through this year but an introductory course will no longer be offered.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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