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The Colorado Springs School District 11 administration building.

Colorado Springs School District 11 will hold an “equity dialogue” session Nov. 1 — but attendance is limited to 50 and registration is already full, organizers say.

Those who signed up for the session — to be held from 6-7:30 p.m. at the D-11 Board of Education meeting room in the administration building, 1115 N. El Paso St. — were told to submit their questions with their RSVP.

When asked why, LeAnn Slama, Superintendent Michael Thomas’ chief of staff, said this wasn't the case.

“Participants are not required to submit questions in advance," she said. "We will have a process in place to respond to previously submitted questions and questions from the audience in attendance.”

Facing dropping enrollment and student proficiency scores that left the district ranked at 159th of 183 districts in Colorado in 2019, in May 2020, Thomas persuaded the D-11 Board of Education to adopt an equity policy calling for, among other things, “a framework that provides everyone the same access to the same opportunities.”

Thomas set about fulfilling his mandate by creating a district equity and inclusion department, appointing Alexis Knox-Miller as director and hiring an equity liaison and an administrative assistant for salary totals of $187,463.20 per year.

In the fall of 2020, Knox-Miller hired the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research "to generate and use rigorous evidence that contributes to a better, more equitable world," according to its website.

The company says it was hired “to conduct a comprehensive equity audit of the district’s programs, policies, practices and outcomes” for an as-yet undisclosed sum.

The audit's purpose is to find "inequities" in district data and “associate them with strategies to target these drivers of inequality and improve opportunities and outcomes for the students who are most underserved.” The equity report was delivered to the district in June 2021.

In September, Knox-Miller announced a series of “equity café” public meetings to “discuss the findings from our equity audit and the path to move forward in D-11.”

But the format chosen by Knox-Miller hasn't been well received. Some former D-11 teachers and parents complain that the district appears to be trying to avoid direct conversations with them about their issues with the equity audit report, the conclusions the district is drawing from the report and how the strategic plan involved will improve student test scores.

Their worries are similar when it comes to the new "equity dialogue" session.

“I don't know if the district is taking the first 50 to RSVP or the first 50 questions that they find favorable to them,“ said Joseph Boyle, a former D-11 teacher who has attended several of the equity cafés. “This really is even more of a sham than the cafés.”

The venue chosen by the district is small, some believe intentionally so. In response to an inquiry by The Gazette as to why the meeting was not taking place in one of the district’s many large auditoriums that can hold 350 people or more, Slama said, “Our Board of Education room has the best technical set-up for remote cameras, etc.” The D-11 website touts an advanced media production department that regularly broadcasts remote district athletic events.

Lauren Nelson, a candidate for the D-11 Board of Education, decided to run for a seat because of what she says is a lack of transparency and candor by the district. In June, Nelson sent a detailed 15-page letter to the district asking specific questions about the equity audit and the district "diverting its focus from education in the basics such as reading, science and math" to "educating future generations in ideological or political viewpoints." The response she got was less than satisfactory, she said. 

James Mason, secretary to the Board of Education, in his email response to Nelson’s letter, wrote, “The D-11 Board of Education invites our communities to provide input on the adoption of instructional materials and courses, as well as input on the adoption of board policies. It is important that our district has transparency and informed conversations with our stakeholders as we seek to provide comprehensive instruction.”

Nelson remains skeptical, and when she heard about the upcoming meeting and the tiny venue selected, she questioned the commitment to “transparency and informed conversations.”

“The district has multiple venues that could host a large audience with media capabilities, so why isn't the district using the resources taxpayers have given them to actually hear back from those taxpayers?” Nelson said in a statement to The Gazette last week. “If this meeting is to address the concerns about transparency and openness, then limiting the number of community members that can be involved is disingenuous.”

Neither Nelson nor other community members, including former teachers and administrators, think the district has been transparent about the superintendent’s alleged shift away from educational fundamentals and toward equity issues that has cost taxpayers nearly a half-million dollars so far and will continue to cost more than $189,000 per year to fund the Equity and Inclusion Department.

John Gustafson, a D-11 parent and district board candidate who attended the Sept. 30 equity café at Coronado High School, told The Gazette, "It was a meeting that was frankly an insult to our intelligence. And it was obviously an attempt to diminish and disempower the people who had taken time out of their busy schedules to try and actually talk with people in the district like human beings.”

Gustafson said he joined the race "to increase student achievement, to give parents a voice/choice, to get [critical race theory] out of our district and to take a stand for our schools and neighborhoods.”

Nelson says the upcoming meeting is just another attempt to avoid answering hard questions by keeping parents out of the debate.

“There are community members and parents who can't attend (myself included) because the registration is full," Nelson said. "I fear the district will continue to move forward with this agenda regardless of concerns from our community.”

The district will be livestreaming the event https://www.d11.org/Page/5404.

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