Residents, community leaders appeal to Rome BOE to reinstate DEI consultants

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Natalie Williams, the final of five community members who attended the regular meeting of the Rome Board of Education on Wednesday, Dec. 22, in order to appeal to the members during the Public Comments portion of the agenda — shared with the Board that she was a substitute teacher in Rome and had sent several emails offering to coordinate a coding program.

She was enthusiastic about the idea and disappointed that no one had, to date, replied to any of her emails.

Said Williams as she concluded her remarks, “please read my emails and, hopefully, respond?”

The other four speakers, among them a former president of the Rome Board of Education and the current president of the Rome chapter of the NAACP, appeared to sustain the conversation about the Board’s abrupt termination of the services of district consultant on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Access Global Group, pressing the Board to reconsider.

“It’s been awhile,” said former Rome Board of Education President, Dr. Steve Hampe, as he rose from the gallery to make a public comment at the regular meeting of the Rome Board of Education on Wednesday, Dec. 22, “but recent events bring me before you today.”

Hampe began his remarks to upbraid the Board for not making good on their invoking a priority on transparency.

“There is a strong desire that the lack of transparency of this Board be ended,” said Hampe.

Hampe pointed out that the State of New York had extended many revisions to the state’s Open Meeting Laws that were made to allow for business to be conducted while observing Covid-19 related restrictions. He also reminded members that the seated Board at the time of the shut down in the Spring of 2020 had adapted to providing livestream access to Board of Education business.

“Yet, you decided to stop doing that,” said Hampe.

Hampe offered as an example the recent community meeting to discuss redistricting options, held at Strough Middle School on November 29, and attended primarily by faculty, staff and administration.

“It was the most bizarre meeting I have ever attended in the City of Rome,” said Hampe, who noted that the district did not allow members of the community to tune in to the presentation remotely. In contrast to that fact, it bears noting that the expert consultant hired by the district to guide them in those redistricting efforts, Ross Haber, himself participated remotely – appearing only on a laptop screen, off to the side, while consultants from a separate organization made the presentation and fielded some hard ball questions from a sometimes less than friendly crowd.

Access Global Group

Hampe then segued into the Board’s controversial and, without argument, abrupt termination of Access Global Group, the expert consultant engaged by the district to coordinate its efforts to identify development areas and provide training and programs to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), an outcome resulting on a vote on a resolution to approve AGG’s contract for their third year providing services to the district, where the majority of votes were in favor of the contract, recommended by Superintendent of Schools Peter Blake, with the three nay votes being cast by the three officers of the Board, but a governing rule involving quorum did not allow the motion to approve the resolution to pass.

Hampe referred to a remark made during the Equity Task Force meeting proceeding that Board meeting, where, previously, only Board Vice President, Tanya Davis, was a member and AGG President, Dr. Shanelle Benson Reid was chair and closely coordinated all of the ETF’s efforts. At that subsequent meeting, three other Board members were reported to have attended for the first time since the ETF was formed during the 2019-20 school year. According to sources in attendance, no decision were made with regard to concretely continuing the work that was in progress or scheduled by AGG.

“A Board member present at that meeting mentioned that only 18% of Rome’s students were non-white, as if that meant they were not important,” shared Hampe, who said he found the remark and its implication to be “reprehensible.”

Hampe reminded that AGG’s three years of service to the district was summarily ended by a “3-minute conversation” of the Board.

Strough incident

Hampe outlined a recent incident at Strough Middle School, where a group of students stomped out the image of a swastika in the snow on school grounds. When fellow students expressed their disgust by stomping out the image, the culprit students responded by stomping out in that same snow the letters “KKK.”

Hampe also shared reports of students at Strough and RFA who identify with the LBGTQ community being “mobbed” at those schools to “repeat their pronouns.”

“And you state you are acting as ‘stewards’ for education,” challenged Hampe?

Amid incidents like these, together with similarly concerning incidents reported by two different district parents of color at the preceding Board meeting, where physical bullying was reported to have been motivated by race, Hampe defines the actions of the Board’s officers in abruptly terminating the work of AGG that he noted was concretely addressing these issues by reminding them that they offered the reason that they wanted to hire someone internally.

“Your alternative was to hire someone in-house – run it from the inside,” reminded Hampe. “Where is the nominee? Where is the candidate?”

Hampe also put out for the record reports that, together with the superintendent, Board members had agreed that seeking competitive quotes from other contractors to ensure fiscal due diligence, as well as exploring the option of hiring a district DEI coordinator, should be explored this coming spring, as the school year – and AGG’s contract – would be coming to a close, but that in the meantime, AGG should be allowed to continue its work in progress. His understanding appeared to be validated at the meeting in question, where – immediately after the three officers voted against approving AGG’s contract – member, Lisa Herbowy was visibly surprised and agitated, confronting the culprit members to remind them what had been “discussed.” Blake, also clearly blindsided by the votes, also remarked that AGG’s continued work had been “agreed.”

Hampe directly addressed the three new members of the Board – Craig Ferretti, Elena Cardwell-Reddick and Anna Megerell – with this advice:

“The loudest voice is not always the one that needs the most attention.”

Hampe reminded that district students – right now – are “facing hardship” that specifically called for an external diversity consultant.

“Rome’s was a pilot, as Blake pointed out, for the rest of the State,” said Hampe. “Now, we just behind the crowd.”

Hampe concluded his remarks to state that “the public needs to be heard on this.”

“It’s not about ‘non-white,’ it’s about what’s right,”said Hampe, “for the community – the entire community.”

NAACP speaks

President of the Rome chapter of the NAACP, Jackie Nelson, stood up to share that the community was very upset about what happened at that Board meeting where AGG was terminated and posed questions to the Board, inviting them to submit their answers to her after the meeting.

She noted that Board Vice President, Tanya Davis, defended her “no” vote on AGG to say that she was concerned with the cost and believed that the work needed to be open to competitive quotes. Nelson noted that was not consistent with Davis’s remarks at the proceeding Equity Task Force meeting.

“She pointed out that only 18% of Rome’s students were non-white students,” shared Nelson. “Why would that come up? What difference does it make how many students are black or whatever?”

Nelson then asked members why – if their concern was the cost of the contractor – they did not seek outside funding sources.”

“My understanding is that there were grants available for this,” challenged Nelson, “correct me if I’m wrong?”

Nelson pointed out that the votes against approving AGG’s contract put an end to all of the work in progress in the district on DEI initiatives.

Nelson also reminded the Board that its president, John Nash, had offered that his vote was motivated by seeing “no movement” at the one DEI-related meeting he had attended since AGG began its work in the district in 2019 … where that meeting was a “community conversation” held at a district school. – 

“Are any of you experts in DEI,” asked Nelson of the Board? “If so, why didn’t you offer you assistance prior to the vote to come up with something else?”

Nelson, clearly emotional and escalating, stopped short of continuing at that point, and instead simply asked the members, “why can’t DEI be just as important as everything else?”

“This work was so important. I can’t emphasise that enough and I don’t understand why all of you couldn’t see what was happing in the school district,” appealed Nelson. “You took a blind eye to it and made people feel like they just don’t matter.”

Nelson concluded her remarks to commend Blake for the “good trouble” he had gotten himself into on the issue, and Amanda Jones, Director of School Counseling for the district, as well as Assistant Superintendent, Chris Brewer for being the “best administration” – for “putting kids first, no matter what they look like or where they come from.”

Residents speak

Sarita Ruiz, a district parent and small business owner – like Nelson – came out to appeal to the Board for the second time since the culprit vote to cease DEI work in progress in the district. She manifest the mission of DEI initiatives in her challenge to the Board.

“Why is there such resistance to having someone come in and properly audit what’s going on,” asked Ruiz, who likened it the hiring of an objective auditor to advise on fiscal status. “We had that with AGG – educated, experienced, knowledgeable.”

Ruiz confronted members who had expressed a desire to hire or appoint an internal staffer to coordinate any DEI efforts.

“That is like saying, ‘we don’t want anyone else in our business,’” offered Ruiz. “We want to keep it here.”

Ruiz shared that a “well known Roman on his radio show said that the DEI program was cancelled because “people don’t want their tax dollars spent on this.’”

“Yet they surely spend enough on sports,” Ruiz pointed out, “and many of their children do not directly benefit from it”

Ruiz stated that anti-racism is a “way of life” – a new habit for many people – and, like any new habit, it begins as a decision and is followed by the challenge to change.

“To be an ally means to take on the struggle as if it was your own,” said Ruiz, “to be uncomfortable.” 

Ruiz shared that the first step to dismantling racism is in individuals ejecting that denial of their biases and being open to educating themselves. She believes AGG had effectively begun that process in Rome.

“Why was AGG’s contract cancelled,” asked Ruiz of the Board as she went on to muse at possible explanations, a ‘contract issue,’ ‘a performance issue,’ a ‘policy-based issue?”

Ruiz pointed out that what milestones had been given to AGG regarding performance were reported to have all been adequately met.

With regard to the suggestion that the cost was a justifiable cause for the “no” votes, Ruiz asked members, “how much is our children’s equality worth to you?”

Ruiz formally requested that AGG’s contract with the district be made available to the citizens of the City of Rome and asked the Board to save the time and effort of having to file an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act request).

Concluded Ruiz, “how can three people put a stop to a program like this? Three people?”

For Ruiz, it was a serious question.

“Why did three people have the power to dismantle it,” lamented Ruiz. “We had a good thing going on.”

Rob Wood rose to speak, as well, to note that it sounded like a lot of discussions were happening behind the scenes, as indicated by prior speakers.

“Hopefully, we can get the partners back together and make movements, because we need it,” said Wood. “There are people there who are struggling need help.” 

Important to note in the face of appeals to the Board of Education to reinstate AGG to allow them to continue their DEI work in progress, is the fact that the resolution to approve AGG’s contract for this school year can be reintroduced a resolution to the full Board to be voted on again. The rules that govern that scenario require a member whose original vote was cast on the prevailing side. A parliamentarian would need to confirm which side would be considered prevailing, where four members voted to carry the resolution and three voted not to approve the contract, the motion neither carried or failed – it did not carry because of a quorum rule - but the majority of voting members in attendance did vote in favor. What is true is that it is possible for the Board to reconsider the decision. Whether they will or not – in response to continued pushback from the community - remains to be seen.

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