by Mike Knaak
About 20 people showed up for the July 19 Sartell-St. Stephen school board meeting wearing blue shirts with the message Kids Over Politics. But that message was soon lost as the national debate about critical race theory dominated the meeting’s open forum period.
A crowd of about 125 packed the old elementary school gymnasium after the meeting was moved from its announced location in the District Service Center board room down the hall. Typically, few people attend school board meetings and the board room is adequate.
Most came to voice their concerns about the district’s equity audit report. Eighteen people spoke during the open forum period, which allows each speaker up to three minutes to address the board. During this time, the board listens but doesn’t respond.
While the speakers were split between those who supported and opposed the audit, the speakers criticizing the audit received the loudest, longest applause. Speakers criticized the choice of Equity Alliance MN to conduct the audit, the audit’s survey questions and data as well as the need for the effort.
Some of the same comments were made at the June 21 open forum before Equity Alliance presented the audit findings. That meeting too drew a large crowd and it was conducted in the high school’s Performing Arts Center. At that meeting, Equity Alliance staff outlined findings of their study that included reviewing data, focus groups with students, staff and community members, and observations of the district’s schools. The district’s equity effort, which promises that each student, particularity students of color, receive the support needed to be successful in school, picked up support following last summer’s killing of George Floyd. During a listening session in June 2020, students and parents shared stories of racism and hurtful comments about religion and gender.
At the July 19 meeting, several speakers questioned how the survey’s data was gathered and interpreted, including David Switzer, an economics professor, who called the data “flawed” and “laughable.” Other speakers repeated requests to see the raw data and actual survey questions.
Several speakers linked the district’s equity effort to the current national debate about critical race theory, which has surfaced as the latest cultural flashpoint. It’s become a catch-all phrase to criticize a range of teaching practices addressing race. The theory developed decades ago and, through the study of law and U.S. history, attempts to reveal how racial oppression shaped the legal fabric of the United States.
Speaker Steve Kron tied critical race theory to the equity effort, saying critical race theory “undermines western society.” He called it “cultural Marxism.” Another speaker, Peter Wilson, took his criticism a bit farther and questioned why Equity Alliance was chosen for the study. He asserted Equity Alliance has ties to other national social movements and said Black Lives Matter “is a communist, terrorist group.”
Students, parents and community members who spoke in favor of the continued equity effort focused on racism but also how the district needs to address bullying, mental health, religious, LGBTQ and economic issues that divide students.
High school student Josh Nguyen shared his reaction to the report’s comments. He said he reacted with shame, embarrassment and rage when reading the report. “It was humiliating that none of my experiences with racism are real.” Turning the equity effort to politics, “redirects away from real issues,” he said. “That Sartell is equitable is absurd.”
In response to critical-race-theory concerns, parent Tina Schmidt said “no one is asking your children to apologize for being white.”
The delivery of the equity audit report is not the end of the process. The board plans to review the issues raised and develop a plan, along with teachers, students, parents and the community, to address priorities.
“I know there is frustration,” Superintendent Jeff Ridlehoover said. The audit report is “in need of refinement and clarity. We are going to go slow and get it right. We want to get this right for our kids.”