BURLINGTON - Despite obvious financial concerns, Town Meeting passed a warrant article by a clear majority to create a Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion position in the School Department.

The financial warrant article will see $81,000 be raised and appropriated, and added to the current School Department’s Operating Budget to fund the position to be spent under the direction of the School Committee for fiscal year 2021. The article passed by a 73-33 margin.

The district’s Equity Committee and Burlington Against Racism (BAR) group, and a group of Town Meeting members crafted the warrant article, with formal support from School Supt. Dr. Eric Conti. Incorporating this position is a huge step in the Equity Committee’s prerogative to continue to work towards appropriately implementing modernized cultural competency in Burlington schools.

The committee, which consists of Burlington High School students and various school officials, has devised an Action Plan for achieving goals of equity in the district. The Equity Committee has been functioning for the past two years, but things have really picked up steam in the last five months with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The newest components of the Action Plan call for hiring anti-racists educators and more educators of color; creating an inclusive working environment for educators of color; making sure the entire staff is training in equitable practices; and establishing protocol for addressing students using racial slurs in person or on social media, which recently took place among Burlington students on a social media website.

In hopes of achieving these lofty goals, the Equity Committee asked school and town officials to move forward with the hiring of a director to help see the aforementioned objectives come to fruition.

Sara Shaikh, a Burlington High School student and student representative on the School Committee and Equity Committee, contextualized the situation.

“There is a lot of work to be done. If we want to get it done, we need to prioritize them by hiring a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” declared Shaikh during the hybrid Town Meeting session, with members attending in person and virtually. “It would be a permanent district position with the responsibility of leading Burlington into a journey where all students feel safe and represented and respected in our schools. I urge Town Meeting to make this a priority for the 2020-21 school year.”

This will be a Central Office position who will report to the superintendent, which is consistent with other communities that have a similar position.

The specific job responsibilities for

the equity director were as follows:

- Identify and assess biases and racism in district programs and practices.

- Establish equitable and culturally responsive teaching strategies.

- Provide district-wide diversity, equity and inclusion training.

- Support the hiring, retention and promotion of a diverse workforce.

- Evaluate the current curriculum for cultural competence and relevance.

- Create protocols and a robust system for reporting and responding to incidents of bias and discrimination.

- Encourage and mediate open conversations about bias, discrimination and racism.

The hiring process calls for a myriad of job requirements, such as a master’s degree with 5+ years of related experience in a school setting and a bachelor’s degree with 7-10+ years of experience in areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. The selection process for candidates includes a Hiring Committee, meeting with student focus groups and meeting and greeting with members of the Burlington Public Schools community.

“This position will see that equity is a lens that we start from, not where we end at and we shape our decisions and policies acknowledging that,” stated Dr. Conti. “The equity director will be a valued member of our leadership team. We are not color blind. We want to make sure all students feel like they belong.”

Getting to a vote

Three of the five School Committee members, along with the majority of Ways & Means, proposed amending the article so there is more “flexibility” in terms of ensuring the position is implemented properly and that the funding situation becomes clearer as the community battles with COVID-19, in addition to racism.

“The School Committee has not had thorough conversations with the Equity Committee on the oversight of the position. We want flexibility so we can study other models and figure out what works best,” advised School Committee Chair Christine Monaco. “This warrant article [$81,000] only pays for this year, partially, but the funding can go up to $140,000 next year. We do not have that type of money in our budget.”

Ways & Means voted 5-7 against the warrant article, with the opposition stating “budget cuts are creating a big concern over the next fiscal year.” The town’s economic officials are worried that fiscal year 2022 may “potentially be worse” than fiscal year 2021, so Ways & Means “felt this is not the best time to be making this fiscal allotment.”

The Ways & Means members in favor cited a commonly heard reason for supporting the position’s implementation now: “It is an urgent community need.”

Precinct 3 Town Meeting member Joanne Frustaci strongly urged her constituents to not wait a minute longer and approve this position, specifically referencing students who have been victims of racism as recently as this year.

“This issue is a burning, pressing need. Students have given us ample evidence of the need for this position,” she insisted. “The Equity Committee has been asking for this position for the last several years.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Precinct 5 Town Meeting member Chris Murphy expressed a desire to not rush the position through but rather make sure the vetting process is adequately conducted.

“We need to do this the right way. We do not want to mess this up by rushing it and creating a disservice to the town,” lectured Murphy. “The level of this position is similar to an executive, and you typically do not hire a vice president of a company in a week.

With some more discussion taking place, where similar points were reiterated, the common theme was everybody was firmly in support of the merits of the position and those against, only took that stance because of the financial uncertainty that has resulted from COVID-19.

When a vote finally was taken after almost two hours of dialogue, Town Meeting passed the warrant article by a 73-33 margin, fulfilling the requirement for a clear majority approval.

As the ball really gets rolling and candidates are made public, expect constant updates on the status of this position in the coming months.

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