Colorado Springs School District 11 has effectively dissolved its groundbreaking Department of Equity and Inclusion and, with it, the director of equity and inclusion position.
By a "thumbs-up" at the April 6 board meeting, D11's board voted 4-2 not to fund the equity department in the 2022-23 preliminary school year budget. The board's conservative majority led the decision; directors Julie Ott and Darleen Daniels opposed the move.
This decision shutters the department that implemented D11’s equity policy and practices, which were put in place in 2020 under previous Superintendent Dr. Michael Thomas, to “meet the unique needs of all students."
Diversity and equity issues, along with racist and offensive comments by conservative board members Al Loma and Jason Jorgenson, have divided the district since new members were elected in November.
Neighbors for Education, a D11 parents group that advocates for equity in schools, said in a statement they are “deeply saddened but not surprised” at the board's decision. The district’s volunteer Diversity and Equity Leadership Team was already dissolved in December 2021 after newly-elected conservative board members Lauren Nelson, Al Loma and Sandra Bankes made it clear they opposed it.
“This action will do harm to our most vulnerable students and strip resources from the students who need them most,” the Neighbors for Education statement said. “The purpose of the equity department was to improve academic performance for all students, a goal the Board of Education claims to have. We believe every student deserves an education that meets their unique needs regardless of zip code.
“It is heartbreaking to see our beloved school district being liquidated in pursuit of a political agenda,” the statement continued. “Our Students deserve better, our teachers deserve better, and our community deserves better.
"Neighbors for Education denounces the elimination of the D11 Equity Department and calls on the entire D11 community to step up and demand better for our kids." The statement urged community members to express their concerns at the next board meeting on April 13.
The decision to sink the equity department came during a work session at the April 6 meeting, where the board reviewed preliminary budget information and requests. Final budget approval will come later this spring in a formal vote, a D11 spokesperson said.
D11's Department of Equity and Inclusion — the first in the Pikes Peak region —has been funded since 2020 through an $800,000 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation, an organization that funds nonprofits and other entities to improve the outcome of Coloradans of color and lower-income residents. The grant period ends on Sept. 14, according to CHF's online records.
Thomas, who helped create the equity policy but left the district in March in part because of opposition from the conservative-majority board, had asked for $122,840 in the 2022-23 budget to continue funding the Department of Equity and Inclusion and the position held by Alexis Knox-Miller, D11's director of equity and inclusion, according to board documents.
Board President Dr. Parth Melpakam claimed that despite the board's decision to pull all funding for the equity department, the board is still committed to the equity policy. He said the duties and goals of the Department of Equity and Inclusion, such as professional development for staff on equitable practices in schools, will now be allocated to the heads of other D11 departments.
“Equity is an important topic going forward for all board members, and we are collectively committed to ensuring the equity policy that is in place is practiced in our schools and in our district,” Melpakam said. “What [Interim Superintendent] Dr. [Nicholas] Gledich showed us is that … he can incorporate the work that has been done by that department into every other department and every other school within the district. It will be the responsibility then — just like any other policy that we have — of the department head to ensure that that is being practiced.”
Melpakam claimed he did not have enough information about the activity of the Equity Department over the last two years, and what continued funding would be used for, to move forward with 2022-23 funding.
On March 2, the board was slated to discuss the Department of Equity and Inclusion's work during a work session, but that was derailed by the special meeting and announcement that day that Thomas would leave the district, Melpakam said. The board then requested information from the department at a March 16 session, and “nothing has been forthcoming,” he said.
Melpakam did not know whether the Colorado Health Foundation grant has been exhausted.
He said that the board cut 53 teacher positions in the budget.
“We need to be able to justify why we can increase the footprint of central admin and how the scarce dollars that we have, we can invest out there, and if nobody is able to justify that, I'm left with little or no information and I have to make my decision based on the information,” he said.