Bozeman School Board

From left, interim Superintendent Casey Bertram, Board Chair Sandra Wilson, Trustee Greg Neil and Trustee Lei-Anna Bertelsen attend a school board meeting on June 28, 2021, at Gallatin High.

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Bozeman School District officials attempted to address concerns this week around a controversial student equity policy proposal and provide opportunity for public feedback.

The public comment of roughly 46 people took up the majority of Monday’s almost four-hour meeting, with people split between criticism and support of the equity policy.

The proposed changes address ways to close achievement gaps and outline the work of two committees — the Student Inclusion and Resiliency Initiative and the BSD7 Equity Advisory Committee, according to district administrators.

Following a public outcry at the June 28 meeting, trustees voted to table the policy until further discussion and community outreach. Criticism referenced the national debate over critical race theory, which suggests racism is systemic in American institutions. The district’s draft policy does not include any mention of critical race theory.

“I’m hoping that in Bozeman Public Schools we can set aside politics and national agenda and keep the focus on Bozeman, on our students, our teachers,” said interim Superintendent Casey Bertram during his presentation.

Bertram’s presentation covered why equity was being pursued as a way to close the achievement gaps in the district, definitions of key words in the policy title, differences between equity and equality and examples of how equity work is already taking place in the district.

Some of those examples included students with dyslexia who may require extra time and specialized instruction to reach reading standards; students with diabetes who may require a specific health care plan; students new to the country who need extra time and instruction in English; and students with food insecurity who are provided health and nutrition support.

“Equity work in Bozeman Public Schools is foundationally tied to our current and historical achievement gaps,” Bertram said.

For people wondering why there is a seemingly sudden focus on achievement gaps, Bertram said there’s been a recent shift in the district around being more transparent in those areas where it can perform better.

As an example, Bertram outlined the achievement gaps in third grade reading levels. While 66% have reached proficiency in the statewide assessment, 44% have not. Within that group, Bertram said there are certain subgroups of students who are heavily represented like economically disadvantaged students, Hispanic students, students with learning disabilities and English language learners.

The district doesn’t approach student supports or needs based on race, Bertram said.

While Hispanic students might be overrepresented in the district’s reading achievement gap, Bertram said they need individualized support and those interventions will all look different. They wouldn’t receive the same supports because they are all Hispanic, he said.

The presentation was also an effort to diminish fears many people expressed at the previous meeting around critical race theory.

“The district is not looking to adopt a curriculum related to critical race theory,” Bertram said, adding the district is in full compliance with Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s binding opinion on critical race theory.

Following Bertram’s presentation, the board members thanked him for his work to explain the policy and answer concerns from the public.

“I just want to say you’ve taken a very difficult topic and laid it out beautifully and clearly,” said Trustee Lisa Weaver, adding that she appreciated that he was opening up the opportunity for the community to be part of the conversation.

Typically, public comment doesn’t follow a board education segment but administrators opened the meeting following Bertram’s presentation to give people the chance to offer feedback due to high levels of interest, both Bertram and Chair Sandy Wilson said.

The board had received more than 200 emails since the last board meeting, Wilson said.

Many of the people who spoke in favor of the equity policy said they appreciated the presentation and that the district was doing important work.

One woman who had two children in the district said she also represented 177 people who had responded to a Google form showing support for the equity policy.

A recent graduate of Bozeman High School said equity work was important and had real-world impacts on students like her. She said she could have benefited from additional support earlier on in her school career.

Many people who spoke against the equity policy discussed it in relation to critical race theory despite Bertram’s presentation outlining how equity work is tied to issues beyond race and is based on the individual needs of students.

They also expressed concern or frustration with the word equity. While Bertram had said equity is about equal opportunities and not equal outcomes, many people still raised objections to the use of the word.

One woman said equity is always about outcomes and all reference to race should be removed from the proposed policy.

A few people expressed support for additional support for students who might have learning disabilities but said they were concerned about how students who might not need extra support could be impacted by the district’s equity work.

Many people critical of the policy focused on the Equity Advisory Committee and concerns it would pave the way for critical race theory to be taught in schools. Some said the group should be reorganized or even disbanded altogether.

During his presentation, Bertram had said he heard people’s concerns around the committee and the mission and vision statement would be revised.

Most of the audience departed after the public comment period around the equity policy ended.

Bertram said the district planned to hold a series of community conversations to continue collecting feedback on the draft policy. People interested in signing up can do so online.

The timeline moving forward would be based on how much interest they saw in the community conversations, Bertram said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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