Tuesday, October 4, 2022
Oct. 4, 2022

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Evergreen Public Schools’ staff push back against cuts

Formed in 2021, equity/diversity team loses three positions

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Evergreen Public Schools’ board of directors saw backlash from teachers and community stakeholders at Tuesday night’s meeting over the district’s cuts to staffing in its diversity, equity and inclusion department.

Due to budget constraints amid decreased enrollment and efforts to lower the cost of its replacement levy, Evergreen is cutting three of its four equity advancement specialists — positions within a newly created department designed to reevaluate curricula and school resources to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body and community.

The cuts were among over 100 staff members expected to be lost ahead of the 2022-23 school year.

Interim Superintendent John Boyd and the board of directors opened up Tuesday’s board meeting with their rationale for the cuts, stating that the decisions, while “gut-wrenching,” prioritized keeping senior employees over provisional positions.

“Based on our current and projected enrollment numbers, we needed to decrease our budget by about $20 million for the 2022-23 school year. A budget reduction of this size has to include staff,” a district statement read.

“Staffing decisions at our schools and our ASC (district office) need to be made in accordance with Collective Bargaining Agreements. CBAs are built to protect seniority, and provisional employees are not listed on seniority lists for retention because they are only for employees with continuing contract rights. All provisional employees at the ASC were part of the staff reductions.”

Both the announcement and the rationale were met with disdain from meeting attendees, which featured dozens of union members and Evergreen employees — including some whose positions are being cut.

“This is about as racist as it gets,” said Charlotte Lartey, an equity advancement specialist who was told she was being dismissed. “This is making Evergreen Public Schools a liability.”

The three cuts amount to 75 percent of the department’s staff — a group that was formed less than a year ago to address a pattern of racial inequality in teaching and policy development found in a 2020 audit. Approximately 90 percent of Evergreen’s teachers are white, despite servicing one of the most diverse student body populations in Washington.

With the department’s creation in 2021, the efforts to address these concerns of inequity were labeled a priority by district officials.

“There’s no excuse for this,” Lartey said. “I think when we put policies in place, we need to be sure that budgets will be able to support them.”

Several of Tuesday’s speakers, Lartey included, questioned how the district’s equity lens — a feature created to consider racial and socioeconomic equality in decision-making — could have been properly used to make such a decision, despite Boyd’s assurances that the department was not specifically targeted.

A thinned department

Shannon Shambaugh is the last of the four equity advancement specialists remaining after the cuts — she said she was kept on because of seniority, as an employee in her 19th year with Evergreen. When the department was created last summer, Shambaugh said she was moved to tears by executive director Klarissa Hightower’s sentiments.

“My team felt an overwhelming sense of pride to be doing this important work alongside (Hightower),” Shambaugh said. “I allowed myself to really believe that the district was committed to making progress toward racial equity.”

With just one specialist left, Shambaugh said, she fears there’s no reasonable way that the department will be able to serve the district in the way the policy had intended, nor in the way that students might need it most.

“How can one person do what you’ve outlined as such large promises? It’s impossible,” Shambaugh said. “The fact that our neighboring district (Vancouver Public Schools) has prioritized equity by creating this robust team of specialists, it’s embarrassing, to be frank, that our district is choosing to not value this. Our data shows we need this; we have a massive achievement gap.”

Vancouver Public Schools recently approved and implemented a new diversity and equity policy of its own following an audit that revealed considerable achievement gaps and mistreatment of students of color. The plan to alleviate the issue includes a team of 10 equity advancement specialists — compared to just one such specialist in Evergreen following the projected cuts.

Shambaugh also addressed the concern that two of her coworkers being cut were women of color while she, herself, is white.

“It just didn’t sit right with me,” she said.

The Evergreen Education Association would have been required to find Shambaugh, as a non-provisional staffer, a new position had she been chosen to be cut. Her fellow equity advancement specialists, she said, were just a few months away from qualifying for those same protections.

Levy passed, but cuts remained

The equity department was informed of the cuts just four days before the April 26 special election, in which Evergreen’s levy passed with nearly 55 percent of the vote. Had the levy failed, the district would have had to cut far more — including staff, health resources and student extracurricular activities like performing arts and athletics.

Boyd opened Tuesday’s meeting with a sentiment of relief, thanking the voters and volunteers who made sure the levy would pass.

“These are the same folks you asked to door-knock for this levy,” said Adam Aguilera, a middle school teacher in the district, regarding those who are expected to lose their jobs. “Cutting the DEI by 75 percent is the embodiment of inequity. What other department is being cut to that extent?”

Other cuts due to the enrollment decreases include aspects of Evergreen’s Newcomers program, which provides classroom English-language support to immigrants and refugees who have moved into the district. The program’s staff serve as individual liaisons to the families, who are often in need of the introductory services that come with entering a new country.

Boyd, who cited his experience as an English-as-a-second-language teacher early in his career, said he’d make it his personal responsibility to get these students and families the support they need even without the program — a promise that a handful of speakers urged him to follow through on.

The Vancouver branch of the NAACP sent a letter to Evergreen’s board of directors Tuesday night, offering its support to the district in hope that it may make these positions a priority when moving forward with cuts.

“We are aware now that cuts are already planned in your DEI department,” said Jasmine Tolbert, the president of the Vancouver branch. “We understand that changes can still be made, and we hope you make them.”

Evergreen employees and specialists being subject to the cuts say they will continue to push back and speak out against the decision in the coming weeks as the school year comes to a close.

“I have been pushed out of three school districts,” Lartey said. “I will not allow you to push me out.”

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