Hartford Racial Inequality Panel Urges Training for All Officials

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2018

Hartford — Town and school officials are about to formally receive recommendations for cultural awareness training, a new school curricula, and stepped-up efforts to hire people of color, among other sweeping changes meant to address racial inequality in the community.

On Tuesday the Hartford Selectboard will formally receive the recommendations from the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality, a joint town and school committee which spent nearly a year drafting the document. The School Board will receive a similar presentation during its regularly scheduled Wednesday meeting.

“Sometimes, I’ve noticed that the state of Vermont has the reputation of being progressive, and in many ways it is, but it hasn’t been tested in terms of race,” said Simon Dennis, who was recently appointed chairman of the Selectboard and who also served as a liaison to the racial inequality committee. “I do think it’s a form of regional leadership.”

Dennis said that he’s already heard talk that residents in other Upper Valley communities, including Lebanon, have noticed the work Hartford has done on this topic, and expressed an informal interest in undertaking steps of their own.

“I don’t think there’s been any formal action but it would seem likely that the conversation Hartford has had will encourage other towns,” said Dennis.

Dennis said that, after hearing the recommendations Tuesday, the Selectboard would likely vote on whether to accept them during its following meeting, April 10.

The racial inequality committee was formed as the result of a public outcry after a member of the Selectboard forwarded a political cartoon that included a racist depiction of Barack Obama. The selectman, who is no longer on the board, later apologized. The two boards charged the committee with developing policy recommendations to address racial inequality in the community, and the panel voted Wednesday evening on what to bring to the town and school district.

Similar sets of five recommendations will be made to each of the two boards.

Each board is being asked to commit to having it members serve as role models for cultural inclusion, and to adopt a conduct policy that includes a directive under which other members are instructed to bring violations to the attention of the entire board with a formal motion during a public meeting.

Another recommendation asks each board to spend money on professional leadership training services that would help elected officials and management staff understand the impact of racial biases on members of the community.

The School Board is asked to adopt a “culturally responsive curriculum” that would teach the connection between a host of inequality issues, power and opportunity. As part of that recommendation, HCORI members would monitor and receive regular updates from school principals on compliance.

Both the town and the school are urged to find new avenues to find and hire more people of color to their staffs.

It also recommends that money be spent to hire an organization like the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity to develop a strategic plan for equity and inclusion.

Finally, HCORI recommends that it be changed from an ad hoc committee to a standing committee that would be charged with continuing the work.

John Hall, the chairman of the racial inequality committee, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

But Allene Swienckowski, a former teacher and member of the HCORI education subcommittee, said she learned during the process that the school district is already doing a lot to promote cultural understanding, but that much work remains to be done.

For example, she said, she was heartened to see that the classic To Kill A Mockingbird was taught in a way that stresses how the socioeconomic and racial backgrounds of the characters played into their fate.

“When I went to school, that is not how that book was taught,” she said.

Swienckowski said she was unsure what the Selectboard and School Board would do with the recommendations.

“I can’t say if it’s going to be yea or nay or somewhere in between or embraced,” she said.

Dennis said he intends for the Selectboard to have an opportunity to review and amend the recommendations before adopting them.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.