D86 equity initiative needs public deliberation

Racism isn’t always blatant.

Sometimes it’s very subtle. The perpetuation of stereotypes about physical traits associated with certain ethnicities. A repeatedly mispronounced name. Slight differences in treatment. An assumption about where a person of color lives.

This type of racism still exists in the world and, from everything we’ve heard, in Hinsdale High School District 86. Dozens of stories on Hinsdale’s Black Lives Matter webpage offer examples. And at last week’s school board meeting, one brave mom stood up and shared her sons’ experiences with racism.

Even without these stories, we are not so naive as to believe the district is immune from a problem that continues to plague the country.

With two high-achieving schools whose student bodies reflect the different racial and socio-economic populations of their respective communities, the district is in a unique position to become a leader in the area of equity, diversity and inclusivity.

So far, unfortunately, its leaders are not going about it the right way.

We have several questions about the process to hire a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.

First, why were members of the Cultural Equity Leadership Team asked to sign a confidentiality statement?

Why must the wording of the RFP — request for proposal — for such a consultant remain a secret? The Hinsdalean asked to see it and was told it is exempt from disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Act.

We understand why the responses from interested consultants would remain private, to prevent one company from having a competitive advantage, but not the RFP itself. The Illinois Press Association’s executive director, attorney Don Craven, agrees. Per The Hinsdalean’s request, he said the IPA will petition the state legislature to change the wording.

Finally, where is Patrice Payne? She began work July 1 as the district’s first director of instructional equity. It would seem to make sense for her to be leading this initiative, since the consultant presumably would be working most closely with her.

We know others have questioned why CELT meetings are held behind closed doors. We support the opportunity for students, parents, teachers and staff to share their experiences in a protected environment.

But conversations about how the district should respond must be held in public. If CELT recommends hiring a consultant, why couldn’t that suggestion be discussed at a finance committee meeting, which is open to the public and available for viewing online?

Given the evasive answers Superintendent Tammy Prentiss offered at the Jan. 13 board meeting, we understand why some are wondering exactly what the objective is for hiring a consultant. The optics of secrecy certainly don’t help the cause.

That said, we disagree with residents who are focusing on consultant Valda Valbrun’s withdrawal letter or Prentiss’ decision to read it. They seem to believe that Valbrun’s comments disparage all District 86 residents. We wonder why people aren’t equally concerned about the inappropriate behavior of audience members during the public comment section of school board meetings.

Conversations about equity and inclusion are not easy. Some residents will argue passionately that this work needs to be done; others will insist there is no need. We understand the desire to plan this initiative in a room of like-minded individuals who appreciate the value of such work.

Ultimately, however, if the district hopes to create a more equitable environment for all students, more residents will need to get on board. Everyone needs to understand fully what the district hopes to achieve with its equity initiative and exactly what opponents object to.

As we stated early, we think District 86 has a unique opportunity here. If people continue to act the way they’re acting, we fear it will be squandered.