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  1. The Education Gradebook

Race, and the election, come to the fore as Hillsborough School Board tackles new policies

Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes, second from right, is shown at a recent meeting. During Tuesday’s board discussion about new policies, Valdes proposed a “racial equity” policy that would acknowledge institutional racism in the system and mandate steps to correct it. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times] 
Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes, second from right, is shown at a recent meeting. During Tuesday’s board discussion about new policies, Valdes proposed a “racial equity” policy that would acknowledge institutional racism in the system and mandate steps to correct it. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] 
Published Nov. 16, 2016

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board showed Tuesday that, like the rest of the nation, it is slowly coming to terms with the social and political implications of last week's presidential election.

Several board members and district leaders invoked the national climate while discussing a proposal by member Susan Valdes, who is of Cuban heritage, to pass a "racial equity" policy that would acknowledge institutional racism in the system and mandate steps to correct it.

The remedies include recruiting a diverse workforce and implementing "culturally responsive teaching and learning practices" in the schools.

Chief of staff Alberto Vazquez, who supported the policy, said he is hearing from principals that some students now fear they will be deported.

Board members also engaged in a vigorous discussion of transgender students and which bathrooms they should use. The district now makes single-user, universal restrooms available for students with privacy concerns. But, while the district has conducted principal training on federal antidiscrimination laws, it has no written policy addressing which restroom a transgender student can use.

Board member Melissa Snivel­y wanted to state in policy that, aside from the single-user restrooms, students in general should use the restroom that corresponds to their gender at birth.

Five of the seven board members rejected that idea.

Tuesday's session was not a formal meeting, but a series of workshops, meaning that, technically, the members could not vote.

But, through consensus, they were able to agree on which policies will move ahead for a public meeting and vote in the spring.

With several topics touching on race, the discussions became heated at times. At one point, when talking about minority groups, Valdes used the phrase "you guys" to refer to white members of the board. That drew a strong reaction from board member Carol Kurdell, who cautioned Valdes to choose her words more carefully.

"I can't worry about the rest of the nation right now," said Kurdell, who will step down next week.

"But as you all know right now, we're walking a path to division."

The discussion spilled over into a 1 p.m. workshop about efforts the district has made in the past two years to cut down on class time lost to suspensions, and to close a stubborn gap in discipline between black and white students.

Board members decided the policy on racial equity should move forward.

Data that staff presented in the afternoon showed fewer students are being suspended, and for fewer days, since the district overhauled its discipline practices in 2015.

For example: The total number of days that African-American male students lost to suspension dropped from more than 50,000 in the 2013-14 school year to roughly 36,000 in 2015-16.

The numbers also fell for white and Hispanic male students, but not as sharply.

Still, black students are subject to twice as many disciplinary actions as white students are, even though the student population is 21 percent black and 35 percent white.

A separate report, released Monday, shows the news is not as good when it comes to students who are expelled or reassigned to other schools.

Those numbers, which had fallen for five consecutive years, began to creep up in 2015-16, from a total of 458 for the previous year to 508.

Valdes, who generally supports the new discipline methods, noticed an increase in incidents involving Hispanic students.

That, she said, underscores the need for a diverse workforce. "We have something like 28 Hispanic principals" for more than 200 schools, she said. "Hello!"

The board also agreed to move ahead with a policy that outlines which schools are chosen for "Elevate" status, meaning that, based on past performance, they require extra resources. One potentially controversial part allows the superintendent to staff those schools at his or her discretion.

But superintendent Jeff Eakins assured the board he will collaborate with the union in making those decisions.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.