Waunakee’s board of education has decided to dissolve its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee amid concerns that the 25-member group lacked “diversity of thought” and adequate oversight by elected officials.
The DEI committee was formed in 2020, after school-board members recognized the need to review policies and practices which could better support their goals for equity and inclusion.
DEI has been a focus for Waunakee Community School District (WCSD) officials for the past several years, in part, due to incidents that revealed the adverse experiences many students have had throughout their K-12 education. Students and alumni have reported being subjected to racial slurs at the high school, while another explained having to travel around the middle school every morning to enter the building because the entrance on the other side of it wasn’t ADA accessible.
School-board members soon realized that other student groups encountered negative experiences as well, some of which could be prevented if they took a more proactive approach in addressing shortfalls in the district. That’s when one member formulated the idea for an ad-hoc DEI committee.
Former Board-of-education director Mike Brandt proposed that the committee be comprised of students, staff, parents and administrators so that it could gather input from a wide array of stakeholders.
Members would be charged with reviewing district policies related to civil rights and labor laws, hiring practices, and curriculum and then developing recommendations for improvement. At the end of their work, they’d submit a report to the school board highlighting those recommendations.
The committee was unanimously approved by board members in March 2020.
WCSD officials sent a news release to community members that spring, informing them about the committee and notifying them that the district sought applicants to serve on it. More than 80 applications were submitted the first month alone, and after a thorough vetting process, board members announced their selection of 25 individuals and six alternates who they felt represented the community at large.
DEI committee members were given an official charter to guide their work, including the charge to develop recommendations that the school board could consider for adoption.
Members agreed that a data-driven approach would be most appropriate, and spent the next year conducting an equity audit to identify opportunity gaps in the district and areas in which it should consider investing a greater amount of resources. Its results were eye-opening to many in the community and helped the DEI committee formulate more than 40 recommendations that, if implemented, they found could promote greater equity and inclusion in the district moving forward.
Recommendations included providing staff training on inclusion practices, creating opportunities to ensure equal representation of students in AP classes, working with universities to recruit and incentivize BIPOC candidates, and that the DEI committee become a standing committee, among dozens of other changes in practice or policy.
Committee members presented those recommendations to Waunakee’s board of education (BOE) in September.
While many parents praised the committee for its work and the recommendations it had developed, others were less than thrilled about the changes DEI members had proposed.
“I’m asking our board of education for a call to action,” said Waunakee resident Laura Haak. “Thoroughly review the recommendations and compare them to existing policies that we currently have so that time isn’t wasted reinventing the wheel.”
Haak was one of several community members to speak in opposition to the committee’s recommendations or its membership this month, pointing to what they viewed as fundamental flaws. Haak said she agreed with the general concept of the committee’s recommendations but argued that greater transparency, term limits and more diverse ideologies were needed.
WCSD resident Cindy Schwarz agreed, calling some of the committee members divisive and toxic.
“As a minority, I feel that these individuals are not working in my best interest or the best interest of others with diverse backgrounds,” Schwarz said. “My suggestion, if the board wants the DEI committee to continue its work in our schools, is to rebrand and accept new applicants.”
Those concerns were echoed by some school-board members this month, as they discussed the future direction of the DEI committee at their Oct. 11 meeting.
Director Ted Frey was elected to the board of education in April, with the support of parents who had been pushing for schools to reopen throughout the pandemic. Several questioned DEI efforts as well, citing concerns that critical race theory (CRT) was being promoted by the school district.
Frey said he was concerned about the way in which the DEI committee was initially established, citing minutes from the March 2020 board meeting where the committee was approved by BOE members. The minutes stated that “a motion was made and seconded…to establish an ad-hoc committee as outlined with details to be worked out at the policy committee.”
Frey noted that the policy committee had not met since February 2020.
“So the policy committee never met, from what I can see in the notes, to determine what that (DEI committee) should be made up of,” Frey said. “I think that’s what a lot of the concern is from the community, where this was set up and run without input.”
Frey argued that the appointment of DEI committee members without prior consideration by the policy committee is what led many community members to mistrust those who serve on it.
Calls for ‘diversity of thought’
Director Brian Hoefer noted that several objections to the committee and its membership were based on calls for the 25-member body to include more varied viewpoints among participants.
“I think one of the biggest complaints was, ‘We want differences of thought around this,’” Hoefer said.
Public comments made at the board’s Oct. 11 meeting reflected that criticism.
Waunakee resident Dan Feldmeier said he agreed with things that the DEI committee was trying to do but mistrusted its members because they lacked “diversity of thought.”
“The board did not get diversity of thought on the DEI committee, and therefore, everyone right and center of the political aisle does not trust what the committee has done or plans to do,” Feldmeier said, defending conservative opposition to its membership. “This is not hate. This is a lack of trust because the committee did not represent different views.”
Proponents of DEI efforts have questioned whether those concerns are genuine, or merely political.
Board members took those concerns under consideration as they debated this month whether the committee should continue to operate in its current format.
Treasurer Jack Heinemann opposed the DEI committee’s recommendation to become a standing committee.
“When we look at the DEI committee, or any ad-hoc committee, it shouldn’t be a standing committee,” Heinemann said, adding that he questioned reports that teachers in the district had failed to respond appropriately to certain bias-related incidents. “I’m not sure that that is always the case. You know, it may be where a student didn’t articulate to the teacher. I think we’ve got some good teachers here that really understand how to handle those issues.”
Director Dave Boetcher said student input had been invaluable throughout the committee’s work, advocating for students to be included in whatever body replaces the DEI committee moving forward. He proposed that the new body be permanent as well.
“I agree that a long-term ad-hoc committee is not a good idea,” Boetcher said. “And making it a standing committee of the board would be the long-term answer.”
Boetcher said the new committee should include community members, in addition to school officials.
“I’ve talked with some other school-board people from around the state who do stuff like this,” Boetcher said. “There’s a lot of different ways to run board committees. Board committees don’t have to be only school-board members. That’s the way we’ve been doing it. But maybe this is one committee we should do differently.”
Board members agreed that night to dissolve the DEI committee, replacing it with a committee made up of school officials who would later consider the extent of community involvement in it.
President Joan Ensign said it has yet to be decided whether that will be a standing committee.
Dozens of DEI proponents protested the dissolution of the committee at the board’s annual meeting Oct. 18.
Their comments have been included in a follow-up article in this week’s edition of the paper (see page 9).