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Moses Lake School District board talks about race, gender at lengthy meeting

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | June 28, 2021 1:03 AM

MOSES LAKE — There were more questions than answers when members of the Moses Lake School District School Board met Thursday to discuss race and gender.

At the center of Thursday’s discussion during the more than two-hour-long meeting were a demand from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction the MLSD create a “gender-inclusive schools” policy, and a newly enacted state law — Senate Bill 5044 — which mandates “cultural competency,” “diversity” and “equity” training for school board members, administrators, teachers and classified school staff as part of “the important work of dismantling institutional racism in public schools,” according to the legislation.

According to MLSD Superintendent Josh Meek, the new law only mandates the kind of training school district employees will receive, and not what students will be taught.

“This is an adult training bill,” Meek said.

The superintendent added training on diversity and equity, as well as helping staff become aware of their biases, are “nothing new for us in education,” and he found some of the training useful to help him address his own biases.

“We’ve been dealing with this for long as I can remember,” Meek said.

He also noted the legislation, while giving the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) the power to create training programs, also gives the final say to school districts on how they will train staff and teachers. And the bill does not contain anything about “critical race theory,” which emerged in the 1980s among academics examining what they believed were the roles of institutional structures and processes in perpetuating racial inequality in the United States.

Because of the unsettled nature of the recently passed law, Meek said there is nothing the school district can do about the SB 5044 mandates until there is more clarity from Olympia.

“Nothing is shifting away from the focus on kids,” he said. “It will be some time before anyone can make sense of this.”

Board members, however, expressed deep reservations about both mandates, and were concerned about how staff will be trained because that will, in the end, affect how students are taught.

“What is going to be required? I have a huge concern that this will be anti-white, and kids will be taught a lot of hate,” said board member Shannon Hintz.

“What are our district beliefs?” asked outgoing board member Bryce McPartland. “Do we believe that our district is inherently racist?”

McPartland, who announced his resignation from the board in mid-June, noted the WSSDA “fact sheet” on SB 5044 given to school board members merely says critical race theory is not “named” in the legislation, not that it isn’t or won’t be taught.

“That doesn’t really answer the question,” McPartland noted.

On the matter of both gender-inclusion and race, board members gave Meek a series of questions they wanted answered regarding the absolute minimum the district is required to enact to comply with state law, as well as what some terms — which are undefined in proposed policies from WSSDA — mean.

McPartland said he was unsure why the district needed a policy specifically banning the bullying and harassment of transgender students, as stated in the draft WSSDA policy on gender inclusion, when district policy currently bans all bullying and harassment. He was also unclear just how much the MLSD would need to do to address the needs of transgender students, as required in the draft WSSDA policy, since the draft policy does not define what those needs are.

“What are the needs of transgender students?” McPartland asked of the proposed WSSDA policy on general inclusive schools. “I feel like in order to fulfill the mandate, the information is lacking.”

Board member Elliott Goodrich, who is not seeking re-election to the board this November, reminded board members no matter what they decide, there are risks and consequences involved.

“We need to keep in mind the liability regarding the choices we make. Does not providing state-mandated services put us at risk?” he asked.

“What do we actually have to do? We need someone to speak authoritatively on this,” Goodrich said. “If we are not willing to comply, what is our recourse? Because there are many things in that (draft WSSDA gender-inclusive) policy that I’m not OK with.”

The board made no decisions about either policy on Thursday.

Toward the end of the meeting, several audience members vocally pressed the board to pass a resolution banning the teaching of critical race theory and “pornographic sex ed” in the MLSD. However, board president Vickey Melcher refused to consider the matter, since it wasn’t on the agenda.

“This meeting is adjourned,” she said.