Educational equity advisory committee organization takes time
Oregon’s 10 largest school districts are supposed to have educational equity advisory committees in place by Thursday, Sept. 15. Most are still in the process of setting them up, offering lessons for the rest of Oregon.
Senate Bill 732, which went into effect July 1, requires every school district to set up an educational equity advisory committee to advise the board and superintendent on policy impacts and on situations that affect historically underrepresented students. The committee must have school staff, students, parents and community members, but it can’t include the superintendent or a school board member.
Even districts that already had groups doing equity-related work say launching the advisory committees requires months of thoughtful groundwork.
Most districts have until 2025, but the bill requires districts with more than 10,000 students to “convene” a committee by Sept. 15, 2022. None of the 10 districts will have had an advisory committee meeting by then. Salem-Keizer named an advisory committee Tuesday, Sept. 14, and Hillsboro’s committee plans to meet Friday, Sept. 16. The other districts are in different organizational stages, but nearly all expect to have a committee within months.
The committee requirement falls under the school district rules set out by the Legislature and State Board of Education, known as Division 22 standards. There are no immediate penalties, and districts can work with the Oregon Department of Education if they don’t expect to be in compliance by the time Division 22 standards are checked next year.
District leaders going through the process now advise the rest of Oregon’s districts to start early.
The Tigard-Tualatin School District, with its strong student input, has been focusing on equity for years. On Monday, Sept. 12, the school board and superintendent discussed using an existing committee focused on hate speech and bias incidents to build its advisory committee.
The two student school board representatives enthusiastically supported the equity advisory committee in their own district but worried about how it could play out around the rest of the state.
Aishiki Nag, a Tigard High senior, said she fears school board members might “weaponize” the committees to push divisive stances.
“It’s important to have these discussions right, because if you don’t, it will cause more harm,” she said.
Nag said students should pressure their school boards to talk more about equity.
“It’s a conversation we can’t continue waiting to have because students are suffering,” she said.
Owen Ahlbrecht, a Tigard High junior, was on the district’s Education, Accountability, Solutions and Healing Committee that will likely supply members to the new committee. He said he quickly realized that equity work is long and slow, but for him, that just underscores its worth.
Ahlbrecht said students need to be well informed about the equity committees so they can get involved.
Tigard-Tualatin School Board member David Jaimes, chair of the EASH Committee, is a little concerned that a school board member can’t be on the new committee, but he is excited to be getting more information “from the trenches.”
Districts need to make sure they are representing all their student populations, he said, while being careful to avoid “tokenization” by taking information from their committees and then not doing anything with it.
“This is something to be taken seriously because this is the life of students we are talking about,” he said. “They are living these events on a daily basis.”
The district could convene its advisory committee as early as October. Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith said the district would have struggled to move as quickly as it did without the foundation of the EASH Committee.
“It’s a good couple of years process depending on how strong a system you want when you get there,” Rieke-Smith said.
Bend-La Pine Schools already has an Equity Coalition it will be using to form its advisory committee.
Bend-La Pine Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kinsey Martin said it took a year to set up the recruitment process for the Equity Coalition. Martin said the district had to think about how to recruit beyond the people it was usually bringing to the table.
The advisory committee has more legal requirements than the coalition, such as adhering to public meeting laws and putting a member on the budget committee.
The public meetings have raised concerns for district leaders and potential committee members. School board members and administrators have faced harassment and threats recently for their equity work, and people from underrepresented communities feel particularly vulnerable.
Hillsboro School District Equity, Access and Engagement Officer Francesca Sinapi said the committee’s first meeting on Friday will be online but without members’ faces visible out of concern for everyone’s safety.
“These are people willing to come to us, taking risks to change the system,” she said.
She said the first group of 14 people were appointed for two years but the district will take applications again in the spring in case some people don’t want to continue. Sinapi said in the next round the district will make a greater effort to reach families where English isn’t the first language, including having translators available to help fill out the lengthy applications.
Sinapi said she has recommended the group meet monthly, but it will be really up to them to decide how they want to proceed. She expects the group to need its first couple of meetings to build relationships before people can really start discussing the deeper issues of race, identity and equity.
The Eugene School District is also building from an existing equity-focused committee.
Eugene School Board Chair Maya Rabasa said the district is looking into compensating committee members in some way beyond transportation costs. Stipends and school credit for students are possibilities.
The board has suggestions for the advisory committee to address, Rabasa said, but it will really be up to them. She especially wants to hear what students think is important.
“There is no one more impacted by this work, and too often we don’t have that expertise,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA