“All of these policies cover virtually every concern that you may have as a concerned parent or a citizen”
[ By Kendra Walker ]
Critical Race Theory has been a controversial and prominent discussion at Gunnison Watershed school board meetings this year. Over the past several months, parents and community members expressed loud concern that CRT was being taught in the schools, through the district’s “Equity Labs” training for staff, and so far, the school board has provided several opportunities for public comment and listened to all community feedback. During the December 13 school board meeting, the board shared their position on the matter and made clear they all felt the tools were already there to deal with issues from all sides.
“We the school board, and administrators and educators want to listen and hear any concerns the parents and community have about our schools,” said board treasurer Dave Taylor. “We are not making policy tonight. Our discussion is about reliance on current longstanding and thoughtful policy and its applicability to recent concerns presented at our board meetings.”
Policy AC is the district’s non-discrimination/equal opportunity policy, which can be found on the district’s website. It states, “The Board is committed to providing a safe learning and work environment where all members of the school community are treated with dignity and respect. The schools in the district are subject to all federal and state laws and constitutional provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, religion, ancestry, disability, or need for special education services. Accordingly, no otherwise qualified student, employee, applicant for employment, or member of the public may be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to unlawful discrimination under any district program or activity on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, religion, ancestry, disability, or need for special education services.”
In November, CBCS parent Tomas Gomez, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the school district regarding its mask mandate, presented the board with a proposed resolution to ban Critical Race Theory from being taught.
“I do not consider our discussion as a response to the resolution presented to the school district and the board,” said Taylor. “We have solid policy in our school board policy book and there are some who think that we need to adopt new policy when I am saying we have well-founded, adequate policy on our books to address pretty much any concern one of our constituents could have…I believe that Policy AC is more than adequate to address the concerns anyone may have about educational equity, discrimination or harassment.”
Taylor also referred to a series of policies that support Policy AC, that address public concerns/complaints, public concerns/complains about personnel, public concerns about curriculum or instructional materials, teaching about controversial/sensitive issues and instruction resources and materials.
“All of these policies cover virtually every concern that you may have as a concerned parent or a citizen,” he said, emphasizing that no one needs to be well versed in policy to participate in the process. “Call the teacher, call the principal, call the superintendent…Don’t let small concerns become big problems.”
“It’s evident that there’s a lot of sensitivity around the teaching of subjects identified as Critical Race Theory and the 1619 project. It is very controversial,” said board president Tyler Martineau, noting these topics have had heightened visibility on a national level. “As a consequence it is natural for our students to ask about these subjects. Are we to tell them, ‘Sorry, teachers can’t talk about what has now been turned into a topic of everyday discussion’? If a group of students ask their teacher what is the 1619 project, is the teacher to respond, ‘Sorry, I can’t mention those words or I’ll risk getting disciplined or fired’? Because these topics are now in the national eye how can we not engage our students with them?”
He continued, “At this time, however, the school district recognizes the concerns that can exist around controversial and sensitive topics and we have policy in place to deal with it.” Martineau referred to Policy IMB, “Each teacher has the right and obligation to teach about controversial and sensitive issues. The teacher also has the obligation to be as objective as possible and to present fairly the several sides of an issue. Although the teacher has the right to express personal viewpoints and opinions, the teacher does not have the right to indoctrinate students to those views.”
Martineau also noted the district’s process for changing curriculum. “As to overall changes in curriculum, parents need to know that our district curriculum is required to align with curriculum standards developed by the State of Colorado. We cannot just go off on a tangent teaching whatever we want. The process of updating curriculum is a several year process…and there are multiple places for parent and community participation all along the way in the process, which is the legal and appropriate way for curriculum changes to take place.”
“I think the discussion about policy has clarified a lot of issues for the community and I appreciate that we’ve done it,” said board member LeeAnn Mick.
“Dave and Tyler, thank you for your research and I am in agreement with you both,” said board member Mandy Roberts.
District demographics and prioritizing educational equity
Superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols also presented the board with enrollment data based on the district’s October count, providing insights to the district’s demographics for the past 21 years that factor into prioritizing educational equity, including general enrollment numbers, students participating in free and reduced lunch, and English language learners, race and ethnicity, special education, and gifted and talented.
In total this year, the district has 2,081 students, with 755 (36 percent) in Crested Butte and 1,284 (62 percent) in Gunnison. According to Nichols, the district has grown 24 percent in the last 20 years, and since 2000 there’s been 118 percent growth of Crested Butte enrollment. “That’s dramatic to say the least,” she said.
The district’s free and reduced lunch program, which Nichols said is one way to indicate poverty, has 369 students this year, a drop from 433 last year and 483 the previous year. However, the decrease could be attributed to the federal government providing free lunches during COVID, said Nichols. The district also has 192 English language learning students, a 29 percent increase since 2011. Nichols plans to share data on the district’s race and ethnicity, special education and gifted and talented demographics in the future.
“Big picture – when we’re talking about educational equity, these groups matter,” said Nichols. “Kids who are coming from conditions of poverty, kids who are learning English, kids who are not white, kids who have individualized education plans due to a disability and kids who are learning in ways that are accelerated. Our ability to meet those needs has to begin by knowing where those needs lie and who those kids are and how many of those kids we have and direct funding to the right resources.
“We’ve got to be sure everybody belongs,” she continued. “As a foundation everybody has the resources to grow as much as they possibly can in this school so when they walk across that stage and get a diploma from Gunnison Watershed we have taken them as far as they can go because we understand who they are and what their needs are, on both a group basis because that’s where the budgeting happens, but also on an individual level where our teachers are making relationships and spurring those kiddos along.”
Several members of the public spoke in support of the school board and the district’s current curriculum, including the district’s Equity Labs.
“I am a proud member of the Equity Lab. I fully believe in the work that we’ve done,” said educator Kelsey McDonald. “This was not a methods class in any way, shape or form. We did not study the material to turn around and teach to our children. It’s material that’s meant for adults to grapple with. My job and the job of those Equity Labs is to make sure every single child that comes through my room is protected and loved and so I have the tools to make sure that I make every child feel like they belong…Every single child that walks through my door in every classroom deserves to be seen and secure and safe and woven into the fabric of my classroom identity no matter where they come from.”
“I was really proud to participate in these labs this last summer and watch my experience transcend into the hearts and minds of people that teach,” said Chloe Bowman. “And I think there’s no harm in that. I think we can continue to spur that conversation…I’m so thankful for the policy discussion this evening and I hope we can continue to push forward more equitable education.”
MJ Vosburg, former school board member of eight years, also spoke encouragement to the board. “Thank you for the work that you are doing, it’s hard work…Concerning this issue that’s so in front of you right now, stay the course. Thank you Mr. Taylor for pointing out the great policies that are in place that many school boards before you worked hard, hard, hard to make…Trust it and please stay the course and do not be threatened by lawsuits. It’s hard to please everyone but you do have the systems in place and you’re doing a great job, it’s hard work.”
During public comment, no one expressed concern over the board’s stance, or concern that CRT is in the district’s curriculum.