Amherst County Public School officials declined an invitation by the county’s board of supervisors to attend a May 18 supervisors meeting, at which time a recently implemented equity lesson in the school division will be discussed.
The Amherst County School Board in a formal motion asked Superintendent Rob Arnold and Chair Priscilla Liggon not to attend the county meeting and seek discussion in a school board setting they feel is more appropriate. The May 13 vote was unanimous with at-large member Ginger Burg abstaining.
After much discussion and concerns raised by school board members in January, the division recently proceeded with an equity lesson for middle and high school students. Arnold said families could opt out if they chose and alternative lessons were available.
The lesson, which is not graded, addresses topics including social justice and equal or fair treatment of all groups of people, according a posting on the division’s website.
A May 10 announcement on the county’s website said the board of supervisors would discuss the equity lesson and the board presented Arnold and the school board with a list of 25 questions. County Administrator Dean Rodgers said supervisors collectively developed the questions based on comments received from constituents.
The full list of questions is available at www.countyofamherst.com and the county’s official Facebook page. One asks about the motivation of the social justice and equity lessons. Another asks why wealth inequality is part of the lesson.
“Are there differences in the way in which white children are being taught differently than children of color?” a listed question reads.
Supervisor Claudia Tucker said in a May 5 email to The News & Advance that Arnold and Liggon were invited to speak before supervisors to provide background “we can use to answer the growing number of questions [from] residents regarding social equity, history and other educational programs that are included in our curriculum.”
Tucker wrote the intent was for an open and honest sharing of information.
During the school board’s May 13 meeting, Arnold said he works at the Amherst County School Board’s pleasure and would do what it directs in regard to the invitation.
“I think it’s ridiculous, the fact they’re summoning you guys up there,” District 5 board member David Cassise said. “We’re elected to help run this division... if anyone in the community or the board of supervisors has issues, they could come here and discuss those with us, not the other way around. I don’t like the power grab they’re trying to get here.”
“I concur. As a student of local government and knowing what our constitutional responsibilities are, I was very insulted when I saw what was put out there,” District 1 board member John Grieser said of the county’s announcement.
Grieser pointed out the Amherst County School Board is an elected, not an appointed, body, a change that took effect several years ago by referendum. He said as a school official he will not promote anything which does not encourage individual student achievement.
“As a division, I believe we are here to support our students on those endeavors and equip them with the tools to be successful,” Grieser said.
On Grieser’s motion, the board also approved a directive that it would ban any student instruction that promotes one race or sex as superior over another and make clear to the community all students are equally valued and treated.
“That sends a clear message back, in my opinion, and greatly rebuffs some of the questions put out there,” Grieser said.
District 3 board member Chris Terry said he feels the directive fits with the division’s motto of, “Every child, every day.”
“We’re looking out for everybody here,” Terry said.
School board members in January gave direction to delay the rollout of the equity plan to further review the material and address concerns. The delay drew public criticism and concerns from about a dozen speakers, mostly school employees, who supported the lesson during a January board meeting.
Abby Thompson, the school board’s vice chair, said society has issues it must deal with, but within the division’s classrooms students need to be assured they are valued.
“I don’t want those types of things in our classrooms,” Thompson said of divisiveness.
School board members stressed they are not declining a conversation with the supervisors but they prefer a joint meeting.
“I believe this information, we need to hear it. That’s where I think the discussion needs to be, is here,” Thompson said of having the talk in a school board setting.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people on this,” Cassise said, adding: “If we’re going to entertain it, it needs to be here.”
Rodgers said in a May 14 email to The News & Advance that, speaking for himself and not supervisors, he finds it curious the school board doesn’t think it is appropriate to appear and answer questions from representatives of people who fund the schools.
The May 18 supervisors’ meeting, which is streamed online, will allow public comment on the equity lesson, Rodgers said.
“It’s a shame the school leaders won’t be present to hear what’s said,” Rodgers said. “Hopefully, they’ll be watching on YouTube.”