A Wisconsin school board member is responding to a petition from about 1,200 people pushing for a Black history curriculum with complaints Black History Month doesn’t include other races. New Berlin Board of Education clerk Jeffrey Kurth voiced his disappointing opinion at a closed school board meeting on Monday discovered initially by ABC-affiliated WISN. Superintendent Joe Garza had presented a diversity and inclusion presentation that as one school board member put it “missed the mark” in responding to concerns that students at the district’s New Berlin West Middle & High School do not feel safe and students overall could benefit from instruction that went beyond a white-centered version of history.
Instead, Garza tried to make both the arguments that school officials are already addressing any gaps in diversity and inclusion and that they still need to identify where those gaps are. He made sure to point to an article from the hyperlocal news website Patch.com as evidence of the district’s Black history programming, though.
“But again we’re going to continue to monitor our work, identify what the actual problems are,” he said. “Just because we’re talking about it in the media, just because they’re being talked about during the election, just because they’re being talked about, we need to really narrow down and look at what is actually happening in our microcosm of the school district of New Berlin and targeting that, and getting in there, getting our hands dirty, and fixing what we need to get fixed.” What needs to “get fixed” apparently is the school board.
Board treasurer Kate Unger called out the superintendent on his report. “I re-read that petition this weekend and this presentation, I do not feel, addresses that,” Unger said. The remarks earned Unger a response from board member Susan Manley, who made crystal clear why a Black history curriculum on white privilege and racism is needed in the community. “I don’t want us to go down the path of what social media is doing now,” Manley said. “Let’s not get stuck up in that. You know, where race is everything today. I don’t believe it is. We make it bigger than it is and I have concerns about bringing that into the classroom.”
Apparently feeling like he was in competition with Manley for the most thoughtless response to a call for better inclusion, Kurth practically regurgitated his ideas in a more than two-minute rant when Unger explained to Manley that “race is everywhere right now because Black people are dying from police brutality.”
Kurth’s words in opposition to wisdom:
“I want to kind of interject with that last statement. I’m personally offended at one, attack at police officers, because it’s a minute portion and statistics show it. It’s a minute statistic to throw police under the bus. One hundred percent I completely disagree with you. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but the Black on Black crime and the Black on Black death is far more systemic and far more of a problem across the entire country.
I do agree with the idea of inclusivity and I believe that is, we have a Black History Month, which I’m seeing a poster for right now. I don’t see Jewish history month, I don’t see American Indian history month, I don’t see Asian history month, Indian history month, I believe it should all be included and all should be inclusive. I completely disagree with the Black History Month, I really do, because if we’re going to be inclusive we shouldn’t be isolating by race period.”
The conversation prompted parents to reach out to WISN. Allison Dietrich, a parent of two students in the district, told the news station the “upsetting” remarks were made like they were “no big deal.” “I was sitting there just in awe,” Dietrich said. “Sometimes I think I yelled at the screen. I was in shock, I was covering my mouth. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It made me sad for our students of color. If they’re hearing that from him, from a school board member, I just can’t imagine how they would feel.” Dietrich’s husband, Joe, called the superintendent’s presentation “extremely tone-deaf.” “I was thinking to myself, ‘is this really the district that we moved to? Specifically for the schools?’” he said. ‘”Is this a place where I feel we could get the type of education that we want for our children?’”
Kurth followed up with WISN with a non-apology. “On Monday, we discussed passionate topics, and I am a passionate person. I believe in diversity, inclusion and the celebration of all cultural, ethnic and other differences in our schools. If anyone interpreted my comments outside of that context, or if anyone was offended, I apologize,” he said in the statement. “What I meant by my comments is that we all have differences and are all unique and that we should continue to strive to promote the inclusion and diversity of all students, staff and community members.”
Garza responded with a statement to WISN as well, apparently hoping to earn figurative points for being a person of color. “As a person of color, and as a proud member of the New Berlin community, I appreciate the different viewpoints that were shared at the meeting and I hope that our Board members do as well,” he said in the statement. “It is important that we have conversations like this to continue to move our district forward.
“As was clarified in the meeting, and shared with Board members previously, this was meant to be an ongoing dialogue that began with a high-level presentation Monday. It was intended to be a starting point, with more conversations and information at future meetings.”
Watch the entire board meeting here, and skip to just before the one-minute mark for Garza’s conclusion and response to his presentation: