The East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education met on Monday, Aug. 23 – the first day back for teachers and staff, and the eve of the new school year for students. While the meeting largely focused on excitement about returning to school on the heels of the district’s unusually intensive summer offerings, a debate emerged during public comment about the district’s work related to equity and social justice following a letter sent by the district’s new Director of Equity and Social Justice, Klaudia Burton.
During the meeting, one parent called a letter from the new Director of Equity and Social Justice “charged.”
Speaking during public comment, Mike Feldpausch referenced a letter sent by Burton as the district’s Director of Equity and Social Justice, saying it was a “very charged letter” that he had “great, great concerns about.” (Prior to the start of the meeting Feldpausch, who was wearing a face shield, had gotten into a disagreement with Trustee Debbie Walton, who asked him to wear a mask, which he ultimately did.)
Feldpausch asked for clarification on what Burton meant by phrases like “dismantling systemic barriers that students face every day,” “implicit bias,” and “systems of oppression.” Feldpausch said that Burton referenced the rise of racial injustice, and he asked for statistics to prove that claim.
He then questioned whether Burton has biases and if she is the only one in the district to solve issues related to equity and social justice. He also asked whether the Board was privileged before saying that he did not have white privilege, referencing his work starting his own cleaning company. He said that he was stunned by this letter and would keep speaking about it until his concerns are addressed.
Trustee Monica Fink explained to Feldpausch, who is not a regular attendee, that the Board was not responding to him not because they did not want to engage with him in a conversation, but because it was the standard policy not to get into back-and-forths at public comment periods of the meetings.
Nichole Biber, parent and librarian at Robert L. Green Elementary, spoke next to encourage the district to pursue the development of pollinator-friendly gardens through partnership with the City of East Lansing. She said that this is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change and that action now could lead to change within even a few seasons.
She also said that environmental justice and social justice are intertwined since “ecological devastation is caused by an exploitative mindset.”
Feldpausch then took to the podium again to say that while the environment is important, it is just as important to not frighten children. He said he did not see scaring children about the worst effects of climate change as part of the district’s mission.
Biber then spoke a second time to respond, saying her language was geared toward a room full of adults and that teaching children about the environment is a chance to empower them to make positive change. She also said that children are already aware of climate change and noted that students had petitioned to end using disposable food trays at school.
During the period set aside for “Board discussion,” only School Board President Terah Chambers spoke, responding to Feldpausch’s comments. She said that she appreciates how public comment is structured, allowing, she said, people to share perspectives without a back-and-forth to take away from the commenters’ time.
She also said that the district’s mission of “Nurturing Each Child, Educating All Students, Building World Citizens,” does include equity and social justice work to create a supportive environment for all students. Speaking both as President of the Board and a Black mother, she expressed support for the district’s work and the letter sent by Burton.
Chambers also said that, although the district appointed one person to oversee equity and social justice efforts, the sentiments Burton had expressed were also those of the district’s administration.
Chambers also welcomed the public to engage with the Board and administration over email and in follow-up conversations.
The Board expressed excitement about the start of the school year happening fully in person.
During the period for “recognitions,” Board Secretary Chris Martin praised teachers, staff, and administrators for their hard work preparing for the school year. He mentioned in particular that Glencairn Elementary had handmade signs in about 10 different languages welcoming students back. He said he was “overwhelmed by the efforts.”
During her report as Superintendent, Dori Leyko echoed Martin’s sentiment, saying that teachers and staff had gone “above and beyond” in preparing for this school year and that she “can’t imagine harder workers or a greater group of individuals.”
She explained that the first day back for the teaching team had looked different from previous years, in which the entire district faculty had met together. This year, each building held its own meetings, and the district administrative team visited each of the eight school buildings to convey gratitude and discuss district goals.
The new school year also begins as the Bond-related projects to reconstruct and renovate the elementary schools draw to a close. Site work is wrapping up at Marble and Donley Elementary Schools. Leyko also announced that some unused money remains. Leyko said that ideas on how to use that money will be brought to the Board in future months. The use will be restricted by the wording of the ballot measure through which voters authorized the bonds.
Leyko also addressed some policies related to Covid, announcing again that breakfast and lunch will be free to all students this year and that the district will be participating in a PCR Covid-19 testing program for students and staff sponsored by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Families should expect to receive a Google form this week asking about interest. Leyko said that the PCR test is a self-administered shallow nasal swab that should be more sensitive than the antigen testing used by district last year. The district will submit its plan after receiving responses and hopes to roll out testing next week.
At the meeting, two parents came forward to thank the Board and the administrators for their work planning for a return to school but voiced concern over what they view as some lapses in Covid safety, namely lunch time, when students will unmask and be in close proximity.
While outdoor lunch will be available for students in the district, parent Erika Brown-Binion said she still did not feel it was clear how it will be determined who will eat outside. She recommended avoiding the cafeteria and having students eat in classrooms.
The school year kicked off for students yesterday – only a few days after summer educational opportunities for the district wrapped up.
According to Assistant Superintendent Glenn Mitcham, 1,048 students participated in summer offers, filling a total of 1,397 spots. (Some students participated in more than one program.) In previous summers, the district had generally offered a program to allow students to retake courses in which they had not earned credit, but an influx of Covid funding had allowed for more opportunities.
Mitcham said that while many teachers needed rest after a hectic school year, parents and students had wanted more opportunities. The district hired interns, long-term substitute teachers, and paraprofessionals to help staff programs, supplementing the work of ELPS permanent staff and teachers who also participated.
The new summer offerings included an in-person learning camp for elementary students, a virtual summer reading check-in, tutoring for elementary and middle school students, a middle school math camp, a High School 101 course, and credit recovery options for students who were close to receiving credit but needed some additional support. Director of Special Education Nick Hamilton also developed programs to run alongside the other programs being offered.
While the programs were received positively, it is unclear if they will be offered next year since the extraordinary range of options was made possible by Covid-related funding.
The next Board meeting will be held on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. at East Lansing High School.
This article was updated at 9:00 a.m. on Aug. 25, 2021, to reflect the correct date of the meeting – Aug. 23, not Aug. 24.