The Verona Board of Education voted, 3-2, on Monday night to hire Grand River Solutions to conduct a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) review of the school district. Board President Lisa Freschi and members Sara Drappi and Christopher Wacha voted in favor of the contract; Vice President Pam Priscoe and member Jim Day voted against.
The goal of the review, which is to be delivered to the district and then shared in a public presentation, is to help Verona understand what a diverse, equitable and inclusive school environment should look like, what the district is currently doing that makes individuals feel left out, and help the district to set a goal for improvement. The work will be completed by the end of the current school year in June. (Verona’s new superintendent, Diane DiGiuseppe, starts July 1.) The cost of the contract is not to exceed $25,000, which is less than one-tenth of one percent of the school budget.
Day called the decision “probably one of the toughest votes I’ve had to make.” He said that his biggest objection to it was that Grand River is based in California and would do some of its consulting via Zoom, which he has to use for work and doesn’t like.
He also said he thought the town and the district should be examining DEI together. The school district is, however, somewhat ahead of the town in terms of DEI, which was one of the priorities of its 2018-2023 strategic plan. After a pandemic delay, the district convened a DEI committee in March 2021 and it has met several times since. The town formed its Multicultural Inclusion and Accessibility Advisory Committee only in January of this year. Interim Superintendent Dr. Lydia Furnari has had DEI-related meetings with town officials and Verona Police Department Chief Christopher Kiernan and there may be some sort of joint initiative in the future.
Drappi said that the location of Grand River’s headquarters was not a factor in her vote. “This is a global issue,” she said of DEI, adding that “it’s important to have an objective outside point of view, someone that’s not from Verona, someone that can objectively look at our community and get and get data from our community based on surveys and conversations.”
For Drappi, the consultant’s report will be a starting point. “You can’t run a seven-minute mile right off the bat,” she said. “You need to start somewhere and take your time and pace yourself. And I think that’s exactly what the proposal outlines.”
Wacha also stressed that Grand River would be making recommendations only, not changes to the curriculum. “No third party is going to come in and advise our teachers how to teach,” he said. Wacha said that he also appreciated that there would be nothing mandatory about the work. “I think we’ve seen firsthand just how illogical mandates are, you know, through COVID and other things.”
Priscoe, a Verona native and Verona High School graduate, was unmoved by these observations. After recounting that one of her sons had called a racist in September 2020, she said that she believed that Grand River was not an appropriate choice. “They’re not from here and I do not believe they are the right fit for our community,” she said.
Freschi said that, over the months of discussions around the DEI contract, the BOE has “really thought deep and hard about the situation and everything that we’ve heard from the community, and there are valid arguments and concerns on both sides.” She stressed that she does not know what Grand River’s conclusions about Verona schools will be. “They might look at us and say you guys are doing a really good job; keep up with what you’re doing,” Freschi said. “They might say there’s some cracks in the floorboards. You might want to look at this area and perhaps you can do better here. To have an objective person come in and give us an evaluation, I don’t see any reason not to do that.”
You can watch the meeting, which includes public comment for and against the hiring of Grand River Solutions, in full in the video below.