School Board Recap: DEI Presentation, Furniture Purchase Approved

The Board of Education for Lowell Area Schools met for an hour and a half on Monday night to discuss two action items and hear updates from district staff. As happened last month, the meeting was held in the Performing Arts Center at Lowell High School in anticipation of a larger audience.

Although last night’s crowd was significantly smaller compared to that present for August’s meeting, 13 people addressed the board during public comments. All members of the Board of Education, except Laurie Kuna, were present.

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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Presentation

After a student council report, the first item on the meeting agenda was a presentation from Superintendent Nate Fowler regarding the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program.

Fowler said he can remember conversations about DEI-related issues dating back to the start of his tenure with LAS in the late 1990s. However, at some point it became less of a priority. “We had taken our eye off the ball,” he said.

Then, during the 2017-2018 school year, there were a few troubling incidents related to race that occurred in Lowell schools and led to a renewed focus on promoting DEI within the district. A committee was formed, and a school climate survey was conducted in 2020.

That survey asked staff members, from elementary through high school levels, for their impressions of how well the district was meeting the needs of diverse learners. Among the findings from 247 people:

  • 44.1% disagreed that students are well-prepared for effective participation as citizens in a multicultural society. 23.5% of respondents agreed with the statement and 24.7% did not know.
  • Survey respondents were split evenly on whether racist and sexist remarks are heard in the cafeteria, halls and school yard, with 39.7% agreeing with that statement and 39.3% disagreeing. The remainder said they did not know.
  • Nearly half of surveyed staff – 49.4% — say incidents of racial, sexual or other types of harassment and discrimination occur on campus. 28.3% disagreed that those incidents occur and the remainder of respondents did not know.
  • 48.6% disagreed that they had sufficient resource materials to reach from a multicultural perspective, 35% agreed they had adequate materials and 10.7% did not know.
  • Two-thirds of staff surveyed said they would like to attend in-service training to learn more about multicultural education and culturally responsible teaching.

To address these concerns, the DEI program in the district has held staff trainings, organized a high school Diversity Council and is looking for ways to diversify library materials.

Fowler also said there have been concerns from the community about DEI, such as whether that means critical race theory will be taught in classrooms. The district is currently working on a Frequently Asked Questions document that will cover these topics.

Action Items: Unity Gift and Furniture Purchase

There were two action items on the agenda. The first was a $200 gift to the district to be used for Unity High School, and that was unanimously accepted.

The second action item was the purchase of furniture for the high school media center. The school received four bids and selected one for $111,518. “We feel like with [this] quote, we get flexibility and quality,” Fowler said.

The bookcases selected can be moved to allow the media center space to be reconfigured based on various activities and needs. The cost will be covered by a carry-over of capital outlay funds, and the Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the purchase.

Diverse Opinions During Public Comments

Lowell resident David Martin speaks during public comments.

More than a dozen people spoke during the public comment portions of the meeting. As with last month, speakers were almost evenly split in their opinions, with five sharing support for the district, six offering critical comments and two speaking more generally.

Dale Latva, a retired Lowell teacher and parent of two LHS graduates, was one of the first to speak. “I think this is a fabulous place to live and work,” he said. “It really bothers me what’s going on right now.” He heard people were protesting the mask mandate at Murray Lake Elementary and did not think that was appropriate. He suggested people take their concerns to the Kent County Health Department, which issued the mask mandate, instead.

A few speakers later, Calvin VanderBoon shared why he had pulled his two school-aged children from the district. He said he became aware of social media posts by a teacher at Bushnell Elementary and felt they were unprofessional. When he felt his concerns were disregarded by school administrators, he asked that his children be transferred to Murray Lake Elementary School. That request was denied. In wrapping up his comments, VanderBoon also expressed concerns about the DEI program, saying, “Schools should not be endorsing specific opinions.”

Other comments focused on the efficacy of vaccines, effectiveness of masks and whether diversity initiatives do more harm than good. Dusty Hawk said board members were “clowns,” commented on the Nuremberg trials and suggested everyone read The Diary of Anne Frank. Katie Rademacher shared her support of DEI initiatives, said everyone must be a part of overcoming racism and finished her statement by saying those who don’t understand the value of diversity initiatives should “go away.”

Meanwhile, David Martin arrived with an American flag and said he had been waving it outside school buildings at arrival and dismissal times. He encouraged others to do so as well. And bus driver Trevor Harrison commented on the fact that the district was down five bus drivers this year. He encouraged anyone who might be interested in driving to fill out an application.

As with the last meeting, many speakers were met with cheers or jeers as some in the audience laughed, clapped or yelled out comments in response to their statements. About an hour into the meeting, a man entered with an elementary-age boy, sat near the front and proceeded to yell in response to multiple speakers throughout the remainder of the meeting, at one point apparently asserting that Martin Luther King Jr. had resolved the issue of racism in the 1960s.

Superintendent’s Report and Board Comments

After public comments, Fowler provided his superintendent report. He noted the Kent County Health Department has added COVID-19 case counts for school districts to its website, and cases in Lowell Area Schools are currently at 211 per 100,000 residents. That places the district in the high transmission category, but its numbers are about at the middle of the pack as far as county school districts go.

Fowler also noted that the district is watching for more information to come regarding President Joe Biden’s announcement of a forthcoming vaccine mandate. That is expected to affect employers with 100 or more workers and will require employees to either be vaccinated or be tested weekly for COVID-19. This comment prompted many in the audience to yell in opposition to the mandate, and a man seated near the front continued to talk and interrupt continuously for the final minutes of the meeting.

Most board members declined to make any final comments as the meeting ended. However, Board President Brian Krajewski stated that he felt the DEI initiative is important and that diversity, equity and inclusion needs to be a part of the culture at LAS.

The meeting was adjourned at 8:26pm.

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