Equity dominates school board, public discussions | News

By Jim Ridolphi For The Mechanicsville Local

Some found it unusual that a controversial item that authorized Hanover County Public Schools (HCPS) to engage Alliance Defending Freedom “for legal review of Policy 7-1.2 at no cost to HCPS” was included on the board’s consent agenda, a positioning that allowed the resolution to pass without discussion or a separate vote.

At the beginning of the meeting, Chickahominy District representative Bob Hundley asked that the item be moved from the consent agenda to the action items section, allowing a separate vote on the matter.

There was no explanation regarding the reasoning that prompted the Arizona-based organization to become involved in the review of the policy that addresses equal opportunities for all students, but board members approved the request by a 4-3 vote.

Mechanicsville school board member Sterling Daniel said he didn’t think the extra legal counsel was necessary, but South Anna District representative Bob May motioned to approve the agreement. Board chair Ola Hawkins and Hundley joined Daniel in opposing the action.

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It’s the latest round in a battle to amend the policy regarding equal education opportunities for students in Hanover schools. Last year, the board made some changes to the policy but opted to not include crucial elements to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) guidelines that ensure transgender students the right to access use the bathroom of their choice.

Failure to include those guarantees that some contend is mandated under VDOE policy resulted in a lawsuit filed in December 2021 by the Virginia ACLU on behalf of five transgender students in Hanover County.

Peggy Lavinder of Mechanicsville said groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) should not have input regarding HCPS policies, especially ones that address long-standing inequities.

“ADF has a long history of targeting the rights of the LGBTQ community,” Lavender said. “They are an extreme, conservative Christian organization that seeks to blur the line between church and state. They have no place in the discussion of Policy 7-1.2 Equal Education Opportunity.”

Lavender told board members she would like to know “how this item ended up on the agenda” and said she contacted Cold Harbor board member Steven Ikenberry for answers.

“He told me that he wanted to hear from all sides,” she said. Lavender questioned if groups like Equality Virginia were consulted. “The answer was no,” she said.

Rebecca Highfield questioned board members regarding the nature of the group being considered for legal counsel. “Are you aware that Alliance Defending Freedom is a recognized hate group with an agenda to deny the rights of…. transgender students,” she said. “This group should not get to impose their religious views on our school policies.”

Kimberly Thurston of Mechanicsville said she supported the board’s intention to involve Freedom Alliance in the equity discussion. “I am thrilled to see that you all as a board are encouraged to review policy update from Alliance Defending Freedom,” she said during the public comment period. “They are not a hate group. I’m encouraged to see this on the consent agenda.”

In response to the school board’s decision, Equality Virginia, the ACLU of Virginia, the Hanover County NAACP, He She Ze and We, and Side by Side Virginia have joined together to host a community meeting “to give background about what is happening in Hanover schools and provide support to students and families who wish to organize and take action against this decision.” The virtual meeting will be held at 6 pm today, March 16 on Zoom. RSVP online at bit.ly/HanoverCM.

In a related matter, the board approved a resolution recognizing March as Equity in Education Month by an unanimous vote.

Thurston urged board members not to adopt that proposed resolution recognizing March as the Virginia School Boards Association’s Equity in Education Month.

She urged the board to delay a decision on that resolution until they could research a 19-page report from the state’s Department of Education.

“I want to explain to you why continuing equity proclamations, committees and policies in Hanover will not find you the results you are looking for,” Thurston said. “Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates exact resources and opportunities necessary to reach equal outcomes. Equal outcomes are never achievable and are a waste of time and effort to attempt.”

“Stop pushing to lower the standards that we hold high here in Hanover in order to be equitable,” she added.

Thurston said programs like No Child Left Behind and similar efforts are “failing an entire generation of students.”

Pat Hunter-Jordan said the proclamation offered encouraging words, but had reservations regarding its effect on the minority students in Hanover County.

“This board continues to embrace right wing politics while acting as if it supports equity as we’ve seen with the proclamation listed tonight,” Hunter-Jordan said. “They are good words, but where’s the action behind those words to show actual support of equity.”

She said proposals from the Equity Committee have been ignored, and urged that board appointments be rotated to eliminate the same group of people serving on those appointed boards. “This would bring a new perspective to the table.”

In other matters, thanks to a $1.1 million supplemental appropriation, school officials will begin purchasing iPads for students in kindergarten through second grade. Depending on ordering schedules, those iPads should arrive by next year’s start of school, and some could be received as early as the end of this session.

The board also approved a plan establishing a Provisional Academy for Teachers (PATH) in Hanover County. “As you may recall from my budget presentation, we talked about the need to make sure we are offering our own provisionally-licensed teachers the opportunity to obtain their full license by using our in-house resources,” Superintendent Michael Gill said.

The three-year program would allow provisional teachers to obtain the six classes required to gain full accreditation in a local program at no cost to them.

The proposed program would serve about 60 teachers and must be approved by the Virginia Department of Education. Board members approved the plan by an unanimous vote.

The board was also scheduled to discuss possible revisions to the Citizen Participation policy at this meeting, but Hundley asked for a one-month delay to tweak the current proposals that would prioritize speaking positions during the public comment period.

Further discussion on that matter will occur at next month’s meeting or at the school board workshop session scheduled for March 25 at the Federal Club in Glen Allen. That session begins at 8:30 am

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