Orange County Schools targets intolerance. Why one board member changed his mind

The Orange County Schools took a step toward addressing racial disparities in achievement and discipline Monday night, unanimously passing an equity policy.

The system’s Equity Task Force, made up of more than 20 community leaders, parents and district staff, worked on the policy for several months, drawing from school equity policies from around the nation.

“The Orange County Schools acknowledges persistent racial intolerance, inequities and academic disparities in our district,” the policy states. “The Board establishes this policy in an effort to eliminate racial intolerance, and other forms of intolerance, inequities of opportunity, and academic disparities in our district.”

The policy includes a commitment to actively recruiting, supporting and retaining a diverse workforce and removing biases and barriers that contribute to achievement gaps.

“Historically and currently, in Orange County Schools,” the policy states, “such biases and barriers disproportionately affect students of color.” In addition to racial disparities, the policy addresses inequality based on national origin, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age and socioeconomic status.

“The equity task force has not exclusively focused on race,” Superintendent Todd Wirt said, “but has explicitly put its focus there because our academic gaps and opportunity inequities are largely based on race.”

The board moved the meeting from its cramped boardroom in downtown Hillsborough to New Hope Elementary School outside Chapel Hill to accommodate a large number of people in favor of the policy. About 10 members of the public spoke in favor it. No one spoke against it.

Supporters carried simple 8 1/2-by-11-inch signs saying “Thank you.” Board member Stephen Halkiotis urged supporters to come out during budget time this spring, when the board goes before the Orange County Board of Commissioners to ask for money to implement the policy.

Board member Matthew Roberts echoed Halkiotis’ concerns: “We need you all to come out to the county commissioners, so that this year when we ask for an additional half million dollars in funds to implement this and our universal breakfast, we have the additional funds to make this work. The county commissioners have to hear it.”

‘I’m turning around’

Halkiotis said he came to the meeting intending to vote against the policy because of the advice of board attorney Jonathan Bloomberg, who had said the language at the top acknowledging racial intolerance and inequities could open up the district to lawsuits.

“I’m turning around,” Halkiotis said. “I’m letting it go because it’s the right thing to do. Because all seven of [the school board members] have to march together on this. If we don’t march together, we’re in trouble.”

The vote Monday was the first reading of the policy. It will need to pass a second time and will likely come before the board on the consent agenda, reserved for items that don’t need further discussion.

Phyllis Portie-Ascott, a parent of students in the district and a member of the equity task force, said it was difficult to share stories of inequity, but that the members did it because they thought it would help their children and the district.

“There are several things that I like most about this policy,” Portie-Ascott said. “I like that the board acknowledges what kids of color experience every day in Orange County Schools – the persistent racial intolerance, inequities and academic disparities that have created barriers to opportunity. I like that board recognizes that removing these barriers will contribute to higher achievement for all children.”

Parent Katie Harper said the policy was a step in the right direction that took a long time because of the deep history of racism in the nation.

“It is not OK,” she said, “that our current teacher population looks so much like me – white and female – when our student population is a spectrum of skin tones.”

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