Speakers blast D86 on its equity efforts

Superintendent’s comments criticized as rancor threatens to undermine CELT’s work

Hinsdale High School District 86 residents filled the Hinsdale South library at last week’s school board meeting, angry with the handling of the withdrawal of an anti-racism consultant a couple of weeks earlier.

Much of the speakers’ ire was directed toward Superintendent Tammy Prentiss. Prentiss was repeatedly criticized for reading the withdrawal letter from North Carolina-based Valbrun Consulting at the Jan. 13 board meeting. In it, owner Valda Valbrun wrote “(I) really think Hinsdale is a dangerous place and would not be physically comfortable there.”

During public comment, resident Mark Torsberg said the superintendent should not disparage district citizens.

“Sharing Valbrun’s letter in this manner served no purpose but to promote further division within our community,” he said.

Prentiss also was taken to task for remarking in a subsequent Chicago Tribune article that those against the hiring of an anti-racism consultant “represent those in our community who have always opposed this (equity) work, regardless of what we have said to them publicly or privately.”

Resident Angie Sartori, mother of a Hinsdale Central grad and a current and future student, was one of several speakers who called for Prentiss to resign.

“I am now left with a sick pit in my stomach reading about what the superintendent is saying about the people in our district,” Sartori said, noting her extensive volunteerism in district activities. “We care about this district, and we care about what is taught to our students.

“(Prentiss) needs to go,” she added. “She is not fit to lead this district anymore.”

Valbrun had been recommended by the district’s Culture and Equity in Leadership Team to help engender a climate of diversity, equity and inclusion. But before Valbrun’s Jan. 13 board presentation, she submitted a letter of withdrawal, citing the “vitriol and lack of professionalism” she had been subjected to. Residents argued Valbrun was not suitable for the job based on a social media post in August calling three Republicans “devils” and expressing her desire that the party would implode.

“Hiring a Republican-bashing consultant — that is a fact — who then purports to want everyone to thrive has no place in our district,” Sartori said.

But Jacquelyn Bruns, a 2013 Hinsdale Central alum, said she was disheartened by the way the conversation around equity work has unfolded.

“Students need more emphasis on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said. “The way the community treated Ms. Valbrun, as well as the way they are treating the superintendent tonight, demonstrates to me” the need for a consultant.

The proceeding began on a controversial note when board President Terri Walker, citing the number of speakers, shortened the time limit for individual comments from 3 minutes to 2 minutes. Board members Debbie Levinthal and Jeff Waters protested the change, contending that the public has not been given adequate notice, but to no avail.

During board member comments, Peggy James said the strong pushback to the equity efforts demonstrate that, at the very least, the district has a communication problem.

“Transparency is really needed to provide the community with a clear understanding of what the CELT committee does and what their work is and what is being proposed to the board and why,” James said.

But board member Kathleen Hirsman said she supports the work of CELT and implored residents to “dial down the temperature” in discussing the matter to foster a spirit of collaboration.

“Instead of focusing on a consultant who was not hired by the district ... focus on the work that we can do within our school district,” Hirsman said.

Board member Cynthia Hanson acknowledged that many have been hurt by statements made in the last couple of weeks but encouraged all parties to listen to one another.

“If we take a second to practice patience, humility, compassion and empathy, we might collectively learn something that we, as a community, can build with,” Hanson said. “And those (traits), ironically, are the central tenets to diversity, equity and inclusion work.”