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Watchdog group blasts school district for equity training expenses

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Dan Chriestenson discusses his opposition to spending on equity training in front of a mock pig stationed outside the Gresham-Barlow School District offices on Eastman Parkway. 
“All white people are racist.”

Did that get your attention? Good. It was meant to.

The line comes from an equity training workbook from Oregon Coaching for Educational Equity (CFEE), a group with a mission of “making schools a safe and engaging place for each and every student.”

“Courageous conversation” is how Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, described this kind of attention-getting statement after she took the course as a member of the Gresham-Barlow School Board.

Over the last four years, the school district has sent 37 teachers and administrators to the training, including Piluso, at a cost of $1,400 per person.

And because of this, Jeff Kropf, executive director of Oregon Capital Watch, awarded the district the “Porker Award” for what he says is wasteful spending.

Kropf is a retired Oregon state representative who now heads the nonprofit watchdog group focusing on how state and local governments spend tax dollars. To protest the spending, he’s attended several school board meetings with a 9-foot by 12-foot pig — designed to illustrate the porker award — made of metal and spray foam.

Kropf plans to make a documentary about the CFEE trainings using Gresham-Barlow at the center of the story.

“We don’t have a problem with equity training,” Kropf said. “We have a problem with a workbook that says all white people are racist.”

District Superintendent Jim Schlachter defended the training.

“One of the things that the district has worked on and teachers and educators have worked on is to make sure that all of our kids are successful,” Schlachter said. “When you look at the data, it’s clear that some are predictably underperforming.”

The school uses many tools to close the gap between groups of students, and the CFEE training is just one of them.

“It’s really helping folks wrestle with the question of how best to address all students,” Schlachter said. “If we have a definite subset of students who are underperforming, we have to figure out what that’s about.”

Piluso said she found the training “really beneficial” in that it gets participants to engage in thoughtful conversation about race inequalities.

However, Dan Chriestenson, a former Gresham-Barlow School Board member, disagreed.

He said the training “color coded” students and doesn’t address the individual students’ needs.

“We can’t assume the reason (students) are falling behind is a race problem,” Chriestenson said. “None of this helps the student. If you see a racist in the system, let’s find them and fire them.”

Chriestenson said he does believe the school board is doing what it believes is best for the students, but that the district is simply “wrong.”

Kropf also said the cost of the training is “not an appropriate expenditure.”

“If they are going to engage in equity training, that’s one thing. What is disturbing about it is that it’s equity training for a far-left viewpoint, and that’s not training. That’s indoctrination,” Kropf said. “I disagree strongly with the ideas that they present in this workbook.”

He said the workbook teaches school administrators that “minorities can’t get ahead” because of white privilege.

Kim Feicke, a spokesperson from CFEE, said the organization has been bombarded by media outlets who have taken pages from the workbook out of context.

For example, Chriestenson recently appeared on the “O’Reilly Factor” show on the Fox News channel to discuss the issue, which brought a lot of criticism to CFEE. Feike said she feels the group’s mission has been misrepresented.

“The goal of this seminar is to better understand some of the many factors that have gone into creating school systems that are designed to serve some students more effectively than others,” Feike said. “By spending time better understanding the multiple factors that have gone into creating the school systems we work in, we can create better solutions to make schools work effectively for all children.”

Feike said race is a factor that “we must look at honestly and without fear” to address many of the educational equity issues that create achievement gaps among children.

Schlachter said future school board meetings will likely address the controversy that followed after Chriestenson’s Fox News appearance.

The workbook is designed to be digested over a full week, Schlachter noted, when educators will get the chance to “think through really hard issues” and examine their own biases and prejudices.

“The work around equity and making sure all students are successful is the right work,” he said.

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