Schenectady school employees of color call out ‘blatant racism’ in letter to school board

Faculty and staff members outline examples of mistreatment and call for anti-racism teams, training
Acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said the letter was an example of the passion of employees within the district.
Acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said the letter was an example of the passion of employees within the district.

SCHENECTADY – Schenectady City School District employees of color in a letter to the school board last week outlined examples of mistreatment of students and employees of color and called for anti-racism training and a deeper commitment to the district’s espoused goals.

Twenty district employees signed onto the letter, which was submitted to the school board and read aloud at last week’s school board meeting, including teachers, district and building administrators, family engagement specialists and other support staff.

The letter painted a troubling picture of a district that talks about supporting students and families of color as a priority but fails to live up to those goals with concerted and consistent work in the eyes of the letter writer. The letter indicates some staff in the district fail to live up to the district’s own stated goals, instead falling back on racial stereotypes and tropes and speaking ignorantly on subjects of race, including slavery.

“As a district, we talk about equity, but organizationally, we don’t operate with intentionality,” the signatories wrote in the letter. “For a system to be working towards a mission statement is not unusual. However, in the case of this district, to simply be ‘working toward,’ the ideas behind our mission, as a future goal, is unacceptable. The fact that we are not holding the overall organization accountable to the daily reality of the mission is something far more dangerous.”

The letter was submitted to the school board as it took up and adopted a budget for next school year, which raised concerns that the district’s equity and race initiatives would be “watered down” by an administrative reorganization that consolidated a handful of positions, including a supervisor of equity and culturally-responsive education.

The letter writers, though, said even the fear of losing positions was small compared to the day-to-day reality of working in the district as a person of color.

Read the full letter: Letter from faculty and staff of color to the SCSD Board of Education

“The fear of retaliation, isolation and even elimination of positions pale in comparison to the reality of what it means to be a person of color working in the current climate,” according to the letter.

The faculty and staff letter called out what the signatories called “the blatant racism” of a recent online survey soliciting staff and public feedback about ideas for the budget. The platform used to solicit the feedback allows for anonymous comments. The letter writers said the comments represented the broader issues of “white privilege” in the district, referring to the attitudes reflected in the comments of their colleagues, many of which called for culling an out-of-district training day focused on the challenges of urban education and the elimination of positions in the district aimed at improving diversity and the relevance of education to students of color.

“The overarching theme of cutting positions and programs designed to ensure equity, community engagement, anti-racism and cultural responsiveness highlight what it means to be a person of color working in a district suffocating in white privilege,” the employees wrote in the letter.

The letter writers laid out a series of asks of the school board and district officials: discontinue the use of anonymous platforms for collecting data; mandate annual anti-racism training and school-level anti-racism teams; establish racial representation within the district leadership team, and; preserve positions focused on expanding equity and diversity and improving outcomes for students of color.

“We ask that equity work not be sacrificed to balance the budget and positions that work exclusively towards improving the outcomes for black and brown children not be cut,” the staff members wrote, listing a handful of specific positions.

The letter also indicated many employees within the district are insensitive – and in some cases outright racist – in their behavior toward employees and students of color and outlined numerous examples of the kind of behavior the letter writers are troubled by. The examples included: other staff unwantedly touching the hair and bodies of staff of color; other staff assuming staff of color are less educated than they are; staff of color being asked to support their feelings with research while white staff are comforted and protected for expressing themselves.

The letter also said some staff in the district treat students and families of color differently than they do white students and families. The letter noted some staff members “constantly yell, berate and verbally abuse students of color,” and that some district staff speak differently about families of color than they do the families of white state, noting as an example that white parents may be described as “passionate” while black parents in a similar circumstance might be described as “angry.”

“Many staff of color feel physically safe amongst our students and in our hallway, but not emotionally safe around colleagues who are not racially and equity conscious,” the employees wrote.

Board member Bernice Rivera, a former Schenectady middle school teacher and woman of color, said the letter resonated with her and pointed to things that she has experienced herself.

“I welcome it and I think the staff members that shared their concerns are being very brave too, because it’s not easy,” she said. “This is not something, absolutely, that should be put on the back burner. It’s affecting our staff and will trickle down to our students.”

Read the full letter: Letter from faculty and staff of color to the SCSD Board of Education

Acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak on Friday said that the letter was an example of the passion of employees within the district and credited the courage it took for the letter signers to publicize their concerns. He said district committees would take up the issues raised in the letters as they start to shift their work to making plans for what to prioritize in transitioning to a new school year.

“It illustrates that even though we have been doing a lot of work around equity and race there is still a lot more work we have to do,” Bochniak said.

Board member Ann Reilly said the letter should be a moment of reckoning for other employees in the distirct to consider whether they are part of the problem outlined in the letter or part of the solution.

“I really do urge people to consider the letter and to take it to heart and to think how they can be an ally and how they can do some ant-racism work within their building, because that’s pretty heartbreaking to work with people and they feel so mistreated,” Reilly said. “It’s just awful.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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