School Board Split on Equity Policy

Evetty Satterfield, Virginia Babb, Daniel Watson

School Board Split on Equity Policy

While some members see it as unnecessary, Vice Chair Evetty Satterfield says it would provide accountability.

by jesse fox mayshark • March 24, 2022

Evetty Satterfield, Virginia Babb, Daniel Watson

Vice chair evetty Satterfield and board members Virginia Babb and Daniel Watson at Wednesday's school board policy review meeting.

The Knox County Board of Education has for the past several years committed itself to reducing disparities among student demographic groups — in academic performance, disciplinary actions and other measures.

After eight years of effort, little progress in reducing racial and economic disparities.

It’s right there in the board’s current strategic plan, which sets “Eliminating Disparities” as one of its three major goals.

But for the past two months, the board has struggled over whether or how to codify that commitment in a new districtwide equity policy. That struggle continued during a policy review work session Wednesday afternoon, which suggested there may not be a majority on the board ready to take that step.

Vice Chair Evetty Satterfield is the board’s leading advocate for the policy, along with board member Daniel Watson. Satterfield is the only African-American member on the board and represents urban schools that have some of the district’s highest percentages of racial minorities and low-income students — the two largest groups identified as suffering from disparate outcomes and treatment.

Her argument Wednesday was that even with the focus the district has placed on disparities since forming a task force to address them in 2014, there has been little improvement in either academic or disciplinary differences among student groups.

“Yes, we have great intent,” Satterfield said. “Yes, people are doing what they’re supposed to do. But we still have stark disparities in our system. If there’s no accountability, we’re going to continue to be on this train of going nowhere and moving the needle nowhere.”

But several of the board’s more suburban members — and, in the newly partisan climate of the school board, its more Republican members — said they didn’t see the need to adopt a new policy committing the board to goals it has already set.

Susan Horn, who represents Farragut, noted that the board is awaiting the start of its new superintendent, current Chief Academic Officer Jon Rysewyk. He will assume the lead role in July, after Superintendent Bob Thomas retires.

“We have policies that address a lot of this,” Horn said. “I also think that Dr. Rysewyk has a lot of thoughts about where we’re going. This feels more like a strategic plan to me that we’re trying to put into policy.”

The current strategic plan runs through 2024, and Horn said she would support beginning the process of updating it once Rysewyk takes office to reflect the new superintendent’s priorities.

Rysewyk himself kept commentary to a minimum during Wednesday’s meeting, not signaling either support for or opposition to the proposed policy. Thomas, who was not present Wednesday, has promoted the equity policy as a way to formalize the district’s commitment to its work on disparities.

During his interview last month for the superintendent position, Rysewyk emphasized the importance of recruiting a diverse teaching and administrative staff to reflect the diversity of Knox County’s students. He repeated that commitment to board members on Wednesday.

“I think the other part is really closing the gaps that exist between different student groups,” he said. “So for me, those will be my two focus areas in that process.”

Satterfield said one of her frustrations has been the inconsistency of data reporting on disparities. Under the equity policy, she said, district staff would be responsible for regularly reporting progress — or lack of it — toward the board’s identified goals.

“We do not know that data,” Satterfield said. “We don’t know it, and the public doesn’t know it. And I think it is our role to tell the public where we are when it comes to our students and their outcomes.”

Watson represents the board on the district's Alliance for Educational Equity, which is largely made up of community volunteers. He said the group has formed six subcommittees to specifically address areas like chronic absenteeism, disproportionate suspension rates, and building a more diverse school workforce.

"One of the common refrains from the community, and also being talked about within the (alliance) itself, is we need to be more consistent in the data that we're gathering," he said, "and we need to make sure that the data is actually informing the strategies that we're trying to implement."

Board member Virginia Babb, who represents West Knoxville, said that in the absence of a formal policy, the board could hold regular workshops to present and discuss the data.

“I do think as a board we care about the things that we’re talking about,” Babb said. “Could we have a quarterly workshop where we look at these things and really talk to our staff about getting some of the data around these?”

At the suggestion of board Chair Kristi Kristy, district Chief of Staff Renee Kelly told board members she would schedule a workshop to present disparities data on July 27. But in the meantime, Satterfield said she still intended to place the equity policy on the board’s April agenda for an up or down vote.

“I do think we need the district to figure out the accountability,” Satterfield said.