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The first in-person meeting of Bozeman’s school board in more than a year was heated, as dozens of people spoke out against an equity policy that was eventually tabled.

The student equity policy updates are related to work from the work of two committees — the Student Inclusion and Resiliency Initiative and the BSD7 Equity Advisory Committee — and aims to address student achievement gaps.

The policy does not reference critical race theory — which has come to the forefront of political discourse nationwide.

Still, over a dozen people commented against the policy Monday, with many referencing the debate over critical race theory, which is a theory that racism is systemic in American institutions.

The discussion over the issue grew tense as several audience members questioned the trustees on the origins of the policy and its intent.

The board has met almost exclusively online since the pandemic began last year. Board Chair Sandra Wilson said she was originally concerned that moving the meeting from virtual to in person would inhibit public participation.

The opposite was true as well over a dozen people gave public comments Monday night. Wilson said it showed the board that it needs to do a better job educating people on its equity policy.

“I like looking at the people in person,” Wilson said after the meeting. “You can see the passion and the emotion and you can just tell how they’re feeling about what they’re talking about and you don’t have a sense of that on Zoom at all.”

Several people who expressed anger about the policy spoke during a few different public comment sessions during the meeting. Some were concerned over what the policy would mean for students and whether it was too politicized.

Cheryl Tusken, who ran unsuccessfully for a school board seat this spring, questioned the language in the policy.

“The word equity ... is quite the buzz word,” Tusken said. “It sounds like equal outcomes to me, not equal opportunity.”

After more than two hours of back and forth, which included members of the public shouting out from the audience and loudly clapping and cheering after each public comment, the board voted unanimously to table the issue.

Trustee Kevin Black, who made the motion to table the policy, noted that it was formed with input from a variety of groups and that his goal with equity work is to improve opportunity for students.

“I think we can add some education to this and we’ll end up with something that’s really good for our community,” Black said.

The vote to table the policy was met with gratitude from several members of the public, who largely filed out of the auditorium in Gallatin High School after the meeting moved past the issue.

Board trustee Lisa Weaver, who attended her first meeting as a trustee after being appointed to an empty seat, originally proposed taking the matter off the consent agenda after trustees voted down the consent items, which are items grouped and voted on together without discussion.

Weaver said she hears their concerns about the language in the policy.

“We really need to reconsider the language so that our responsibility to the parents and the community is fulfilled,” Weaver said.

Interim Superintendent Casey Bertram said during an interview Tuesday that a lot of the public commenters were viewing equity through the lens of equal outcomes, or guaranteeing the same outcomes for students.

But Bertram said the district views equity in terms of “inputs,” or ensuring equitable opportunities for students. As an example, he said a student with a specific reading learning disability will need more time and support than a student who doesn’t have that reading learning disability.

“That seemed to be a big disconnect in the public comment that tells us as a district that we have more work to do to clarify the language,” Bertram said.

The updates to the equity policy are aimed to ensure equal opportunities for those students.

The mission and vision statement for the equity committee was also included in the policy changes. That drew the attention of a lot of public commenters who said it opened the door for critical race theory to be taught in Bozeman schools.

While the district needs to take those comments into consideration, Bertram said critical race theory was not part of the school curriculum and that it’s not headed in that direction.

Although the Student Inclusion and Resiliency Initiative and the BSD7 Equity Advisory Committee are on pause for the summer, Bertram said their work will continue. Communication and transparency for the two groups will be key moving forward, and the meetings for both will be publicly noticed.

“It was a reassurance to us that we need to make sure we’re communicating well and, as a district, we need to take the politics out of these polarized topics and put the focus back on students,” he said.

Other commenters said the policy and focus on an achievement gap was not based on data. For Bertram, it was another example of ways the district could communicate more effectively because the district has consistently had achievement gaps and subgroups of students that are over-represented in those gaps, he said.

“We don’t want this to be polarizing or political,” Bertram said. “Even though some of those comments were loud and fueled with emotion, as a superintendent, I saw a lot of common ground that everyone in that room wants students to be successful and we need to circle back on how we’re communicating and how we’re sharing so it doesn’t get caught up in buzzwords and national agendas.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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