When the Race Card is Played, Burlington Needs a Full House

By Kevin Joseph Ryan

This is not a news story that has just begun, nor is it a story is likely to end soon. However, that said, it is a story that will no doubt have a definitive impact of the City of Burlington and the entire State of Vermont. Stories like it have caused riots, wars and hatred between neighbors. It’s a story of skin color, cultural clash and a clear failure to communicate.

Following a multi-year debate on socio-economics and the make-up of the Burlington School System, in October of 2010, the Burlington School Commission voted to create a Diversity and Equity Task Force to examine challenges experienced by the ever increasingly multi-lingual and multi-cultural school system and its surrounding community. Burlington has certainly the largest population of ethnic minorities in Vermont, with a K-12 population of 4408 students, one-third of which are classified as non-white. Not only do Burlington Schools have to handle ethnicity, but a student base that speaks over 60 languages, hailing from many foreign nations around the world.

After several meetings, the Task Force endorsed their report “A Strategic Plan for Equity and Diversity” and handed it over for implementation by the School Commission in October 2011. The Commission while grateful for the report, accepted it, but after review, thought the report best left as a series of recommendations upon which they could base their own strategic plan, according to statements released by Commission member Paul Hochenadel of Ward 5.

Further, at the end of January of this year, Burlington award-winning math teacher David Rome released his own report, which mostly contradicted the report of the Task Force and which the School Department allowed to be posted to their own website for a time. The sparks began to fly.

The Task Force Report looks to establish equity between students of every color, by establishing as school policy a concept called “Cultural Competency”. According the to report, compiled largely by former School Commissioner and current Ward Three City Councilman Vince Brennan, Cultural Competence is defined as addressing race issues and racism by establishing a set of ground rules. First, that racism exists everywhere, whether in the form of insults and overt discrimination or as subtle, sub-conscious racism which the racist may not even be aware of engaging. Second, that racism is a function of “White Privilege”, and stems from policies that “favor conventional, white, upper-middle class Judeo-Christian values.” Racism “is not about expecting assimilation into a melting pot, nor is it nor is it about blaming others for challenging the status quo or not following the rules,” according to the report.

In other words, and unfortunately, by the standards of the report recommendations, students classified as non-white can never be responsible for discrepancies in achievement, in behavior, in disciplinary actions or in test scores. Racism and bias must be assumed the causation, simply because white people run the show. In fact, the school system which shows such disparities between students of color and those termed to be white must be “institutionally racist”, even if the staff is not even aware that they themselves are racist. Within a few years, as the report says, “all applicants must demonstrate Cultural Competency.”

Teacher David Rome’s response disputes that such discrepancies indicate any such thing, and that even the data used to reach such a conclusion for the Burlington School System is flawed, such as a 5% gap between European student drop-out rates and non-white drop-out rates. According to Rome, only one minority student dropped out during the time the data set reflects. The net result he says, unfairly blames the teachers and the school system. The result of that report is that minority representatives are calling for Mr. Rome’s dismissal. According to Sara De Osaba, of Vermont Multi-Cultural Alliance for Democracy, his report was “the last straw.” Although, Ms. Osaba said, “They don’t think David Rome is a bad person.”

David Rome is not the only Burlington School staffer who is being recommended for the chopping block by some Task Force members and other minority rights groups. Burlington Superintendent Jean Collins should be dismissed as well, says Councilman Vince Brennan. “There are people involved who are trying to implement diversity who are being held back by Collins.” This led to a very public clash at the April 16th Burlington City Council meeting between Collins and Brennan, where Brennan challenged Collins to admit that White Privilege exists.

Furthermore, the Report of the Task Force recommends that eventually the Burlington School System, to create an equitable environment, will have to hire a commensurate ratio of minority teachers to minority students. As it says, “The BSD Stat must reflect the diversity of our community….” The Rome Report counters by noting, “States and districts seeking to increase the number of minority teachers in order to match teacher and student race should do so prudently. There is insufficient evidence to support hiring policies that give a teacher’s race primary consideration.”

The stakes went up on April the 19th, when a walkout was staged at Burlington High School, by approximately 40 students of primarily African origin, who appeared to be upset by racial epithets against them by other students, the idea that they’d been blamed for school test scores being low and a frustration that the school, especially the English Language Learning Program, had not done them justice. “We didn’t fail the school….the school failed us,” said student Jacques Okuka through a bullhorn.

The tensions across the city are now almost palpably felt by all parties involved over race and equity issues. This led to the arrangement of a secret, closed-door meeting at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue on Prospect Street on the night of May 2nd, led by Rabbi Joshua Chason, whose wife Kathy had been a member of the Task Force. While even City Councilors who had requested to attend without specific invitation were turned away, Rabbi Chason described the meeting as “inviting public officials into my home, which I’ve been doing for twenty years.”

The attendees were specially selected by Linda Cope of Cope & Associates from all the factions, and included Superintendent Collins, Councilman Brennan, School Commissioners Jill Evans and Paul Hochenadel, Task Force members Sherwood Smith of Diversity Now! and Henri Sparks of Shades of Ebony and Teacher David Rome. The meeting reportedly brought few resolutions, according to a City Councilor not in attendance, who would speak only on conditions of anonymity and pointed out they felt an exclusive meeting was a mistake.

Where does this story go from here? Time will tell, as will the next School Commission meeting, to be held Tuesday, May 8th at Burlington High School at 7 PM. The narrative of this story may be confused for quite some time, with charges and counter-charges in a multi-layered debate. Sara DeOsaba makes the claim that the main issue is the failed quality of the English Learning programs. Vince Brennan wants the work of the Task Force validated and brought to bear. Jean Collins says the Commission needs time to create a plan to best suit’s the community’s needs and the students themselves feel betrayed by system that doesn’t understand them.

Thankfully, the Task Force Report itself contains a few glimmers of hope for a resolution. It defines race as representing the notion that “there are biologically discrete “races” of human beings that can be ordered in terms of superiority of intelligence, sexuality and morality. However modern science has determined that no such biological distinctions exist among humans and that the term serves no useful scientific purpose.” So, why not teach the students and the community that race should have no bearing and we can all come together, including not separating out test scores and treating each other as people with civility and respect? Why not be color-blind, as Dr. King recommended, and judge each other on the content of character? As Superintendent Jean Collins put it, “That’s a whole book in the making.”

Let’s all start writing it today.