School Board Chair Peggy Jones doesn’t see anything heroic about her refusal to accept what she knows is wrong – the state-mandated repeal of a policy written to ensure that every student, regardless of race, has a chance at academic success.
She’s merely doing what strong leaders are supposed to do when confronted with a seemingly impossible situation.
She’s taking charge.
“This policy is too important to too many people in our community to just let it go,” Jones said last week. “If we’re going to repeal it, we need to replace it with something that addresses the same issues but is acceptable to the state.”
So, for more than a month now, Jones has been working tirelessly to rewrite the board’s Racial Equity Policy to accommodate new state law that prohibits school districts from using certain words and terminology that refer to racial diversity, equity and inclusion.
The existing policy, which the board adopted unanimously three years ago, includes such terms, as well as “institutional racism,” “systemic equity,” “racial equity,” “culturally responsive,” “racially conscious,” “culturally competent” and “systemic disparities.”
The new law forced the board to make a choice: Dump the policy, edit out the verboten verbiage, or write a new one.
Superintendent David Moore recommended the board repeal the policy, rather than continue to be targeted by the state, which doesn’t seem to care that our district is still grappling with a federal court desegregation order that dates back to the 1960s.
Trying to address the issues in the court order – the goal of which is to create racially balanced schools with diverse teaching staff to establish an equitable education system for minorities – and yet adhere to the new law has put our district in a tough spot.
As local NAACP chapter president Tony Brown put it: How do we address these issues when the state won’t allow the district to use the terminology in the court order?
“The district is caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Brown, who is a member of the court-created joint workgroup, composed of representatives from the NAACP and school district, trying to resolve the issues in the deseg order.
“A federal judge said 55 years ago that there is systemic racism in our school district and, in all the years since, other judges have said the same,” Brown continued. “Now, there’s a state law that says there isn’t systemic racism, and it won’t even allow the district to use those words.
“So the district is being forced to repeal a racial equity policy that was more definitive in actually identifying and addressing the damage done by racism here,” he added. “And, instead, we’re going to end up with a watered-down version that doesn’t confront the specific issues.”
Brown said the NAACP’s attorneys are studying the legalities of the new law, which could eventually be challenged in court. The state, though, continues to press the board to remove the existing policy.
“Mr. Brown is very concerned, but he also understands the realities what we’re dealing with in Florida, where the state is feeling more empowered,” Moore said. “We’re in very difficult times.”
Certainly, it would be easier for the board to simply repeal the policy, since at least some of the protections it offers are mentioned in other policies. Our district already receives too much scrutiny from the state, primarily because the far-right Moms For Liberty group was co-founded here.
Who do you think convinced Gov. Ron DeSantis to put Jones and board member Brian Barefoot on the list of incumbents he’s targeting for defeat in 2024?
Jones, however, will not be bullied – not by the governor, not by the state – and she refuses to abandon the county’s Black students and their parents.
She believes that repealing the board’s Racial Equity Policy and not replacing it would undermine all the progress the district has made during the past three years – since Moore’s arrival – in addressing the deseg order.
She also knows it would send a crushing message to the county’s minority population, especially those in the Black community.
“We’d be telling a segment of our community that they’re children aren’t important enough to have a fair opportunity to succeed in our school system,” Jones said. “That’s not why I ran for the School Board. That’s not why I was elected.
“This board is supposed to be here to support all of the children in our district.”
To that end, Jones has drafted a new policy the board, after some minor tweaks, appears to ready to adopt, possibly as soon as next month but probably in June.
And, yes, it has been whitewashed.
The words “Racial Equity” have been removed from the title and replaced with “Safe, Respectful and Inclusive Education,” which should satisfy the state – though there might be some wincing over her choice of “Inclusive.”
Similarly, the proposed policy doesn’t include several of the terms used in the existing policy: institutional racism, systemic disparities, racially conscious, culturally competent, racially inequitable and, of course, diversity and equity.
Moore, though, said the district will continue its work to help minority students succeed.
“The new policy will communicate the same intent,” Moore said. “We’re using different words – words the state can accept – that essentially mean the same thing.”
Barefoot fully supports Jones’ efforts to replace the soon-to-be-repealed policy, and he said it’s important that both actions occur simultaneously.
“We need this policy, even if it’s watered down a bit,” the former Indian River Shores mayor said. “You don’t want any community to feel it’s being ignored.
“My question is: Where was all the opposition when the board unanimously voted to adopt the existing policy three years ago?”
Barefoot was referring to a board that included Tiffany Justice (co-founder of the Moms group), Laura Zorc (who now works for FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group), and current member Jackie Rosario, who wholeheartedly endorses the repeal of the existing policy and challenged a significant part of Jones’ proposal.
Jones, meanwhile, has no time for political pandering. She’s too busy earning her place among the hardest-working and most devoted school board members in our county’s history.
“She’s terrific,” said Barefoot, a former Babson College president who enjoyed a successful, 30-year career in financial services. “The amount of time and effort she puts in is remarkable, and nobody knows this community better.
“Thank God we have her.”
Brown offered an “amen,” saying Jones might be the best friend the local Black community has ever had on the School Board.
“She’s doing something nobody else would’ve done,” Brown said, referring to Jones’ commitment to replacing the equity district’s equity police. “She doesn’t need to be doing this, and she’s ostracized and targeted by some for much of what she does.
“The thing is, Peggy didn’t just start doing this last week, or last month, or last year,” he continued. “She has embedded herself in this community. She has a legacy here. She is the best friend to all the children of this district, not just the Black and brown children.
“My dissatisfaction with what’s happening here has nothing to do with Peggy Jones,” Brown added. “I’ll always have her back.”
She might need that backing, given the opposition that’s sure to come in 2024, when she’ll have the governor – and almost certainly some Moms-endorsed bootlicker – working to derail her bid for re-election.
“I don’t mind me, personally, being the governor’s target,” Jones said. “I just don’t want him to target our school district.”