NEWTON — The School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to squelch an effort that would have empowered a select group of parents and teachers with sweeping influence over the city’s school system.
Backers of a petition to create an advisory panel said it was needed to improve communication between parents and schools, but critics argued it was a veiled effort to dismantle a district racial equity policy.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller joined eight other members to vote down the measure, following a public hearing during which dozens of educators, parents, and students issued impassioned pleas about the future of the roughly 12,000-student public school district. Collectively, the comments probed whether the district’s focus on antiracism has become a detriment to its long-held reputation for academic excellence.
The vast majority of speakers disputed that claim. In explaining his vote, committee member Rajeev Parlikar agreed.
“Academic excellence has been used as a Trojan horse for what this group is trying to do,” he said. “This is a petition about changing the NPS ethos and forcing a change through a small group of unelected people.”
Franklin Elementary fourth graders Simon Frankel, Elle Stamper, and Lila Borne spoke up, too.
“All of the ways that we are the same and different is a big and important part of our school community and makes us better people who will make the world better,” the 10-year-olds said. “We (should) talk about this more, not less.”
The hearing was held at Newton North High School and stretched well beyond its scheduled three hours. Roughly 300 people packed the school’s cafeteria, while hundreds more watched online.
On paper, the advisory panel seemed innocuous. It would have been composed of current NPS parents, district teachers, and members of the community. And its role would have been simple: offer the School Committee non-binding advice, so long as the committee held public votes on the panel’s feedback.
“We feel like this is a formalized way to bring [parents’] concerns to the school administration,” Irene Margolin-Katz, a parent who backed the advisory panel, said before the hearing. Right now, she said, “the School Committee is not hearing parents’ concerns.”
At the hearing, Newton parent and petition supporter Brian McMahon shared that frustration.
“There are a bunch of parents in here that feel disenfranchised. They don’t feel like their voices are heard, and I reject the notion that we should squash the concerns,” he said.
But a separate group of Newton parents contended that creating the advisory committee is part of a wider effort to minimize the diversity, equity, and inclusion pledge the district passed less than three years ago.
Sana Fadel, a parent opposed to the advisory panel, said the unelected group the proposal would create could undo progress Newton has made on improving racial equity within its public schools.
“Any advances in students’ achievements that have been focused on underrepresented populations will reverse, we will have students [who do] not feel that school is a safe place,” Fadel said.
Last November, a group of parents — including Margolin-Katz and those who signed to create the new advisory panel — filed a separate letter to the district to revise its racial equity policy to one that erases the focus on race altogether.
The letter said the district should have a DEI “approach to education based on pro-human values that are fundamental to the fair treatment of all students, teachers and staff at NPS.”
Tamika Olszewski, the first Black woman elected to serve as the chair of the Newton School Committee, said the district adopted its statement on racial equity to “recognize the different racial demographics of our students.”
“If you don’t articulate [those values] clearly, then there is a vacuum,” Olszewski said. “And in that vacuum can breed all sorts of things that aren’t healthy, and aren’t conducive to really enriching learning experiences.”
Fadel and other critics said in a joint statement that the proposed language to replace Newton’s DEI policy was similar to material released by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, which advertises itself as a nonpartisan organization that promotes “a common culture based on fairness, understanding, and humanity.”
The national organization’s website features “The Pro-Human Pledge,” which calls for people to be treated “equally without regard to skin color or other immutable characteristics.”
Margolin-Katz said supporters of the proposed advisory panel are not affiliated with the national organization and rejected claims that there is an effort to undermine Newton’s racial equity efforts.
“We definitely support DEI goals,” she said. “I want the school system to address the racial gaps, economic gaps [among students]. That’s all I want.”
The Newton Teachers Association, which represents roughly 2,000 school employees, opposed the advisory panel.
“This petition is rooted in an inherent distrust of educators: in their professional capabilities and their ideological intentions. We reject these assumptions and urge the Committee to deny this request,” the group said in a prepared statement.
The Newton advocacy group Families Organizing For Racial Justice also opposed the proposal and backed the schools equity efforts. Excellence for one child “can and should” look different than academic excellence for another, the organization said in a statement.
“They are two different people and they have two different needs. Our schools give kids what they need,” the FORJ statement said.
Newton is among the state’s largest districts, with about 11,700 students. More than half of its students are white, while about 20 percent are Asian, according to state demographic figures. Another 10 percent of students are Latino, and roughly 5 percent are Black. About 8 percent are described as “multi-race Non-Hispanic,” according to state data.
Earlier this month, Newton voters turned down a proposed tax increase that would have included $4.5 million for the city’s schools.
Enrollment in Newton’s public schools is on a decline, mirroring many other Massachusetts districts. The district reported about 11,700 students as of Oct. 1. Before the pandemic, Newton’s enrollment was around 12,600, according to a district report.
The debate around the proposed advisory panel comes as the city’s schools faced accusations of bias from the right-leaning group Parents Defending Education.
Last fall, the national organization filed a federal civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education against Newton North High School over whether a theater group illegally limited its auditions to people of color. Earlier this month, it said it filed a separate complaint over the high school’s Dover Legacy Scholars program, a mentorship program for Black and Latino students.
Critics like Fadel link the proposed advisory panel to a larger attack on the district’s DEI values, such as the complaints from Parents Defending Education.
“This current petition is just another tool to try to reverse Newton’s DEI values,” Fadel said.
More than 150 Newton residents have signed the petition backing an advisory panel that would serve the city “regarding the establishment of core principles” for Newton’s public schools.
In the petition, supporters pointed to signs that there is discontent within Newton’s schools, including a recent survey that showed less than of one-third parents and guardians who responded believed the district was heading in the right direction. About 2,200 people filled out the survey.
School Committee member Christopher Brezski voted against the parent panel, but he urged his colleagues to reflect on actions that may be contributing to parent frustration.
“Sometimes we have a tendency of being dismissive of folks whose opinion doesn’t necessarily agree with our own,” Brezski said. “So I really think we have to ask ourselves why we’re here. And are we listening to the voices that we don’t agree with?”
Correction: The Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com. Mandy McLaren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mandy_mclaren.