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A Wichita-area school board rejected a strategic plan because it called for diversity and inclusion

In a 4-3 vote, members of the Derby school board rejected a proposed strategic plan for the district over calls for diversity, equity and inclusion. Voting against the plan were Andy Watkins, Jennifer Neel, Mike Blankenship and Robyn Pearman.
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Derby USD 260
In a 4-3 vote, members of the Derby school board rejected a proposed strategic plan for the district over calls for diversity, equity and inclusion. Voting against the plan were Andy Watkins, Jennifer Neel, Mike Blankenship and Robyn Pearman.

The latest controversy involves what is normally a routine practice for school boards. Derby's five-year blueprint was crafted by dozens of parents, students, employees and community members.

WICHITA, Kansas — The Derby school board has rejected a proposed strategic plan for the district because it calls for diversity and a focus on students’ mental health.

Dozens of parents, students, employees and community members developed the plan over the past several months before the board rejected it this week.

“I don’t think focusing on diversity is going to (help) ... our kids, academically,” board president Michael Blankenship said. “Rather than trying to point out our differences … we should try to find things that make us unite. We should find similarities.”

The board’s conservative majority — Blankenship, Jennifer Neel, Andy Watkins and Robyn Pearman — voted against the proposal.

It’s not the first time district leaders in Derby, just south of Wichita, have resisted efforts focused on diversity and inclusion.

Earlier this year, some board members requested an apology from a high school principal who showed a video about white privilege during an employee meeting.

The district removed a controversial novel about the Native-American experience from a list of approved classroom materials.

And some board members recently raised concerns about a textbook publisher for supporting Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism efforts.

The latest controversy involves what is normally a routine practice for school boards. Districts regularly craft strategic plans to outline priorities and set goals. Derby adopted its last five-year plan in 2017.

The proposal included several mentions of diversity, equity and inclusion, and suggested forming an advisory committee that would report on trends in student and staff diversity.

Neel, the board’s vice president, said she opposes any effort to audit the district’s discipline data or hiring practices related to race.

“How is that legal? Hiring somebody based off the color of their skin versus their qualifications — I don’t understand how this even made it into this document,” Neel said.

Becky Moeder, Derby’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said the state requires collecting some data related to race and other factors. She said the intent of the plan was to encourage a broader pool of applicants and increase efforts to recruit people of color.

“I didn’t realize this was an issue,” said Neel, who is white. “That’s my concern — that we’re discriminating against people when we’re hiring them and enrolling them. … Now we’re going to measure it. Now we’re going to focus on it, and this seems like discrimination.”

Blankenship, the board president, proposed striking the word “diversity” in one part of the plan and replacing it with “unity.”

“If we keep going down the road of focusing on everything that makes us different, how are we ever going to unite?” Blankenship said.

Board member Pam Doyle, who voted in favor of the plan, said diversity efforts are common in the business world and should be part of the district’s mission.

“Diversity is something to be celebrated,” Doyle said. “The more diverse (the) administration, teachers, and staff that we have, the more we’re going to learn from each other.”

Board member Tina Prunier, who voted in favor of the plan, said she didn’t understand why concepts like diversity and equity are controversial.

“These words have been around long before political gain,” she said. “I don’t understand why it’s becoming such a divisive thing.”

Some board members opposed parts of the plan focused on mental health and social-emotional well-being.

“Schools are not in the business of mental health,” an unidentified board member said in written feedback sent to the steering committee. “Strategic planning should focus on the learning environment and leave the mental health to the medical professionals.”

Candace Landers, a Derby teacher who served on the committee, disagreed. During a presentation to board members this week, she said community surveys cited mental health as a top concern, and that social-emotional growth is part of the state’s vision for education.

“As a classroom teacher, I cannot recall a single day or scenario when my students’ mental health has not been a consideration,” Landers said. “I am hard-pressed to fathom how I would begin to separate school and mental health and still be a good teacher.”

District officials said Superintendent Heather Bohaty would work with board members in coming weeks to decide the next step in the strategic plan process. The board hired Hazard Young Attea & Associates, an Illinois-based consulting firm, to help facilitate the steering committee.

“The development of the next five-year strategic plan will continue to be a high priority and should be representative of all stakeholders,” district spokeswoman Katie Carlson said in an email.

“We appreciate the extensive work the steering committee that developed the proposed strategic plan has put into this point.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2022 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Suzanne Perez
Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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