by Mike Knaak
After weeks of backlash to a consultant’s equity audit survey and report, the Sartell-St. Stephen school district voted Aug. 2 to part ways with the group Equity Alliance MN and move ahead to tackle the district’s equity issues with a committee of parents, students, community members and staff.
Superintendent Jeff Ridlehoover recommended the move and the entire board agreed during a special meeting.
The move came after mounting criticism of how the audit survey was conducted and how Equity Alliance analyzed the data.
The blowback began even before Equity Alliance presented the report to the board on June 21. Twelve people, mostly opposed to the audit, spoke during the board’s open forum at the start of that meeting. Later in the meeting, the consultant outlined its findings from the audit, which included student surveys, school data analysis, interviews and classroom observations. More than 100 people attended that meeting.
At the board’s July 19 meeting, another 18 people spoke during the open forum, about half criticizing the audit. The outcry against the audit continued on July 26 when a mother and daughter appeared on “Fox & Friends” and claimed students were prohibited from sharing survey questions with parents.
Later in the day, parents and staff in the Sartell-Stephen school district received an email clarifying questions about the district’s equity audit. A “high volume of calls and emails” to the district prompted the administration to “provide clarity and context,” Ridlehoover said.
At the Aug. 2 meeting, Ridlehoover and board members said they were “disappointed and frustrated” about the process and cutting ties with Equity Alliance was a path to getting the equity project back on track. For weeks, district administration asked the consultant to provide the survey questions, one of critics’ main requests. After a series of meetings, Equity Alliance said its lawyers advised against releasing the questions, citing priority rights.
When Board Member Patrick Marushin asked Ridlehoover if the district was seeking a refund from Equity Alliance for services not provided, the crowd loudly applauded. Last fall the board approved paying the consultant $80,000 for the audit. Ridlehoover said the district is “actively negotiating” the return of some of the money.
Ridlehoover suggested to the board the district move ahead by forming a committee. The group’s size and makeup have to be worked out, but the board wants to move forward quickly and asked people who want to be involved to come forward.
“It’s time to put the focus back on kids and staff,” board member Jason Nies said. “It’s time to move forward.”
On Aug. 3, Ridlehoover said “we’re not going to waste a lot of time” assembling the committee. He said there’s a working group preparing a plan to share at the school board’s Aug. 9 meeting. Ridlehoover said he anticipates a large group but the emphasis will be on student voices. The group will include multiple stakeholders, he said, but “we are really looking for students voices.” The superintendent said he hopes the group will meet for the first time in September.
While Ridlehoover said the quantitative data in the report was difficult to understand, the qualitative responses, including student testimonials about their experiences, did stand out.
“We have students who have struggled with climate and culture in our schools,” Ridlehoover said. “That can’t be tossed out the window. Those are real kids’ stories.”
The district’s effort to address equity, which promises that each student, particularity students of color, receive the help 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, hurtful comments about religion and gender.
“To students who have shared stories. We hear you and see you and are committed to being better,” Ridlehoover said at the Aug. 2 meeting. “The noise has distracted our important work and it needs to end.”
Ridlehoover’s July 26 email to parents and staff addressing community concerns about the study said in part:
“The survey was provided to students during distance learning via Zoom. Many students were in their homes while in the distance-learning model. Teachers were instructed to note if a parent/guardian opted out of the survey and some families did contact the district to opt out of the survey prior to its administration. Parents/guardians were not prohibited from speaking to their children about the survey nor from viewing the survey while the student was taking it. Notification of the surveys included emails to families and staff in December 2020, weekly announcements to families in December 2020, and local media coverage…”
“Credibility and transparency are really important,” Ridlehoover said. “There was never an intent to keep things from parents. That was not the case. At no time did our teachers ask kids to keep anything secret.”
The email went on to say, “The context that was shared – which may have been misinterpreted by students and/or staff – was that students were asked to answer the questions related to their own personal experience and that their answers should reflect their own personal perceptions and not those of classmates, friends or family members.”
The process for developing the survey questions began last winter when Equity Alliance provided the questions to the school board for review.
Critics of the equity audit and survey results have linked it 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.
Critical race theory has “never been part of the conversation I’ve had with what we’re looking to do,” Ridlehoover said. “We are looking to provide each and every student a positive experience. There is work to get done there. The audit showed it. Unfortunately, CRT has been brought into the discussion by people who think there’s some sort of agenda.”
A law firm representing the Kids Over Politics group, whose members have criticized the audit, on Aug. 2 threatened to sue the school district if it did not meet its demands. The Upper Midwest Law Center listed demands that included the district discard the equity report findings and that the district apologize to parents. Upper Midwest Law Center has sued several Minnesota institutions over critical race theory.
Ridlehoover declined to respond to the threatened lawsuit. “Once they’ve involved a law firm, we won’t comment.” The threat he said, “makes it difficult to have a conversation.”