About a year ago, the Palm Beach County School Board was under fire for lacking diversity among its top-level managers. The complaints stung, given the overwhelming diversity among the district’s roughly 18,000 teachers and staff.
But the district’s response has been frustratingly slow for many. It created a committee of community groups tasked to solve the racial and gender equity problems. A year later, that committee has met only twice and yielded nothing of substance, including electing a chairman.
“You have more staff in the room than you do members of the committee,” district spokeswoman Deborah Stewart told the panel at their second meeting on March 19. The first meeting, held Feb. 19, mustered only 12 of a possible 24 members. The March meeting saw just six, well short of the 13 needed for a voting quorum.
Some minority groups are concerned that the committee’s lack of progress could result in a missed opportunity to not only advise the school board on how to promote diversity but also to address lagging minority student achievement.
“I talk not just for the Hispanic community, I talk for all minorities,” said Joaquin Garcia, chairman of the Hispanic Education Coalition — which lobbed most of the complaints a year ago — and its representative on the committee. “My concern is that between now and when we accomplish something, a generation of kids will be lost.”
Before the committee’s creation last April, Garcia’s coalition led a group of Hispanic activists who for months complained at board meetings that the district does not have enough Hispanics in top leadership positions despite a student body that is roughly one-third Hispanic. And with the committee’s lack of progress over the past year, Garcia hasn’t let up on his criticism.
“There is a resistance to doing what needs to be done by the district,” Garcia said. “They have just given us ‘pacifiers’ to keep us entertained as time goes by, but there has been very little progress.”
He fears the committee is becoming one of those ‘pacifiers’ as the district treads slowly.
For example, at the start of last school year, the district had 231 principals, superintendents, area or assistant superintendents, chiefs or department directors. Of that group, 16 were listed as Hispanic, 65 were listed as non-Hispanic black and four were listed as Asian or American Indian.
At the start of this school year, that total number had fallen to 228, of which 20 were listed as Hispanic, 61 non-Hispanic black and seven Asian or American Indian, according to a district employee directory.
Stewart puts the delay squarely on the groups that make up the committee. The district’s policy lists 24 agencies that are to appoint representatives. After months of emails and phone calls, Stewart said only 19 agencies have responded.
She said groups such as the Hispanic Human Resources Council have named representatives who have never shown up. Others, such as the Haitian American Task Force United, have never responded.
“Hopefully, people will make it a point to get here because we need to take official action,” Stewart said. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for April 16.
Bob Louise Jeune, president of the Haitian American Task Force, said he had been out of the country and plans to participate. Hispanic Human Resources Council Executive Director Jorge Avellana said his group has picked a representative but that staff has not had the time to participate.
Mike Burke, the district’s chief operating officer, said he will ask the school board to allow a smaller quorum, requiring attendance by more than half of the groups who have appointed representatives. That process could take months.
LaTanzia Jackson, chairwoman of the Coalition for Black Student Achievement, said she has seen some improvement in the hiring and promotion of minorities in the last year, even if it has been slower than some might want. And Stewart pointed out that changes to large institutions — the district is the nation’s 11th largest — take time.
In the last year, former William T. Dwyer High School principal Joe Lee was promoted to assistant superintendent of safety and learning environment. Francisco Rodriguez, assistant director of quality assurance, also was promoted from his area director of school accountability position.
Last month, the district lost arguably its highest ranking minority when Joe Sanches, former chief of support operations, left for a private sector job. The district is searching for his replacement, and for someone to fill a new job of similar rank — chief strategic information officer.
To Garcia, this is evidence the committee’s goal of getting more minorities in key leadership positions has stalled. Without progress soon, the Hispanic Education Coalition will likely resume making its complaints at board meetings, he said.
“They are forcing us to do what we do not want to do,” he said, “which is get in their faces.”