September 29 2020

Selectmen Say They Support School Director of Diversity Position but are Wary of Current Town Finances

By: Rich Hosford

The Board of Selectmen weighed in on the proposal to create a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Burlington Public Schools that will be before Town Meeting on Wednesday but did not take a vote on the warrant article. 


As reported on BNEWS, the BHS Equity Committee and the group Burlington Against Racism (BAR) have been advocating for the creation of the new position and have been joined by a number of other groups and Town Meeting members. The article, number 7 on the warrant, is asking Town Meeting to approve $81,000 to fund wages for a Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion position with the same to be spent under the direction of the School Committee for FY2021. 


In the backup material, a letter from BAR that is signed on by numerous groups, Town Meeting members, educators, parents and students, explains why they feel this new position is important. 


“We recommend the creation of a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion position to spearhead these initiatives identified in the Burlington Public Schools Equity Committee Action Plan,” the letter says. “This is an inaugural position that will provide us an opportunity to learn how to best support the evolving needs of our community. Our subsequent progress as a community is contingent on this new leadership and accountability.”


The letter continues by pointing out that other communities have taken this step. 


“By hiring a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Burlington has an opportunity to join other early leaders, including Acton-Boxborough, Arlington, Brookline, Dedham, Lexington and Wellesley in the work of eliminating disparities in student success by building the capacity within the district to developo and consistently implement equitable and anti-racist practices,” it says. “Burlington Against Racism is committed to partnering with the Burlington Public Schools and the town to take this first critical step.”


Members of the board said they were supportive of the position but weighed the need against the $2.1 million deficit facing the town in FY21 due to a lack of local receipts (hotel and meals tax, building permits, etc.) due to the shutdown of much of the economy in response to COVID-19.  



Selectman Bob Hogan said he doesn’t believe there are many people in town who would disagree that the position is a good idea but that as selectmen they have to take everything into consideration. 


“We have a $2 million deficit we are trying to make up in the schools and the town, and that is a $2 million deficit so far,” he said. Timing wise it’s perfect because of everything going on in the world but also, timing wise, it’s the worst time because financially is something we have to take into consideration. Adding $81,000 to a school budget when we just asked them to take $350,000 out of the budget I don’t think is the right action. 


Hogan suggested the proponents form a working committee to work on the goals of the student group.  


Selectman Nick Priest also said he is wary of adding a new position in a time of financial uncertainty. 


“I think you’re going to hear the same thing - we all support this but we’re also concerned with our position to ensure the financials of the community during such a difficult period,” he said. “The question is how do you put a dollar sign on our values and pick and choose with what to move forward with and not to move forward with. This board supports what you’re doing.” 


Priest also mentioned that the board is looking at a subcommittee to explore these issues on a town-wide level. 


“We do believe that inclusion and equality is important,” he said. 


Selectman Mike Runyan, who called himself a “budget hawk” suggested the work of the position could be done by someone from the current staff. 


Selectman Jim Tigges said he is also supportive but wary of the finances but said if a committee were formed he would like to participate. 


“I’m going to echo what everyone said - it’s strictly financial to me - I’m behind the content and need for this 110 percent and if you do form a committee I want to be on it and will run with a full head of steam,” he said. “But when we’re hearing that 2022 could be worse than 2021 would be the only reason why I’d hesitate letting this go forward. Again, I love this idea, I think it’s awesome and want to be part of it. But we’ve had to trim several departments and I think it would be unfair to tell every department to cut, cut, cut and then move forward on something that will impact us financially.”


One of the proponents, Town Meeting member Shari Ellis, said that they don’t need to form a committee because the BHS Equity Committee already exists and the work has been done. 


“We are at this point now because they have already done the work,” she said. 


Ellis also said that having someone in house do the work is not a viable option. 


“We want someone with experience and there is no one with the proper experience,” she explained.  


In the end the board let their comments stand and did not take a form vote to recommend for or against the warrant article. This will be taken up by Town Meeting on Wednesday, September 30.


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