Stamford Advocate

City school board candidates disagree on existence of systemic racism in U.S.

- By Ignacio Laguarda ignacio.laguarda @stamfordad­vocate.com

STAMFORD — Perhaps the most illuminati­ng question during an hour-long Board of Education candidates night Monday was the very first one asked.

All seven hopefuls competing for three seats on the board were asked if they believe in systemic racism, a form of discrimina­tion that is embedded in society and leads to the unfair treatment of minorities.

The three Democratic candidates, and one unaffiliat­ed contender, agreed that institutio­nal racism still exists today.

Two of the three Republican candidates, however, denied the existence of embedded discrimina­tion against minorities, while one Republican refused to answer the question.

It was a fitting tablesette­r for a discussion hosted by the recently created advocacy group Alliance for Black Achievemen­t and focused on the performanc­e of Black students in Stamford schools.

Republican candidate Josh Esses was the first to speak and decided to pass on the question about systemic racism.

“Your question is a loaded one, and it often turns on arcane disputes about definition­s for what does systemic racism actually mean,” Esses said. “A fulsome discussion of that could take hours, if not days.”

Esses said he would like to expand school choice with more charter schools and voucher programs designed to give poor and middle class families more alternativ­es for their children’s education.

Incumbent Becky Hamman and candidate Joe Gonzalez, both Republican­s, said they do not believe systemic racism exists.

Gonzalez drew upon his own experience as a Latin American immigrant who was able to succeed and had a long career as a Stamford police officer.

“If systemic racism exists, then I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have achieved,” he said.

Versha Munshi-South, a former teacher and principal at Public Preparator­y Network in Manhattan, mentioned incarcerat­ion rates as an example of stillexist­ing systemic racism. Black people are incarcerat­ed at a disproport­ionate rate compared to the overall population.

She called for more diverse hiring in the district.

“We need our students to see themselves reflected in teaching,” she said. “I’ve never had a teacher that looks like me, but I became a teacher anyway and part of that was to show other students there are lots of careers available to you.”

The teaching staff in Stamford remains mostly white, although the district is made up mostly of Hispanic students, data show.

According to the district’s enrollment figures from late last year, about 45 percent of students in Stamford are Hispanic, while about 30 percent are white. While Black students are about 14 percent of the entire student body, the percentage of Black students outpaces the percentage of Black teachers.

Democratic candidate Michael Hyman, a staff member at the Stamford nonprofit Domus and former Stamford NAACP president, and Democratic candidate Ben Lee, who currently serves on the Board of Representa­tives, didn’t hesitate in proclaimin­g systemic racism exists.

Lee mentioned universal pre-K as a way to address opportunit­y and achievemen­t gaps in the district, which mostly affect families of color.

“Students who have already had the opportunit­y to be in pre-K to start their learning on reading before they get to Stamford Public Schools are in a much better position to be able to be reading at grade level,” he said, later adding, “We have to make it a priority that every single student has that opportunit­y.”

Black students in Stamford continue to graduate at a rate below both white and Asian students. In the 201819 school year, the last full year before COVID-19, 87 percent of Black students in Stamford graduated, according to data from the Connecticu­t Department of Education’s EdSight portal.

In comparison, 93 percent of white students graduated, while 94 percent of Asian students received a diploma.

Hamman argued that systemic racism doesn’t exist by pointing out the country elected a Black president in Barack Obama, and Vice President Kamala Harris is a Black woman. She also mentioned there are 57 Black members in the U.S. House of Representa­tives.

“There is no nation in the world where a minority holds this much power, so I do not believe there is systemic racism,” she said.

Incumbent Jackie Pioli, who currently serves as a Democratic member of the board, but who is running as an unaffiliat­ed candidate , said systemic racism exists, and that the opportunit­y gap is actually an education gap.

“It starts in elementary school, and it starts when kids are not reading at third grade,” Pioli said.

Data presented by the school district earlier this year on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills assessment, or DIBELS, showed that a fourth of Black third grade students scored in the lowest category, “below basic,” to begin this school year.

The Board of Education operates under a minority representa­tion rule, which stipulates no more than six of the nine members may belong to the same party. Five Democrats are not up for re-election this year, meaning only one Democrat can join the board through the upcoming election.

But the rule does not stipulate that the minority representa­tion on the board be all Republican. A candidate running as unaffiliat­ed, or in any minority party, would also qualify.

 ?? ?? Stamford Board of Education candidates can be seen online during a forum Monday, hosted by the Alliance for Black Achievemen­t. Top row, left to right: Unaffiliat­ed incumbent candidate Jackie Pioli, Republican candidate Joe Gonzalez, and moderator Bianca Shinn. Middle row: Republican candidate Josh Esses, Democratic candidate Michael Hyman and Democratic candidate Ben Lee. Bottom row: Republican incumbent Becky Hamman, moderator Ellen Bromley and Democratic candidate Versha Munshi-South.
Stamford Board of Education candidates can be seen online during a forum Monday, hosted by the Alliance for Black Achievemen­t. Top row, left to right: Unaffiliat­ed incumbent candidate Jackie Pioli, Republican candidate Joe Gonzalez, and moderator Bianca Shinn. Middle row: Republican candidate Josh Esses, Democratic candidate Michael Hyman and Democratic candidate Ben Lee. Bottom row: Republican incumbent Becky Hamman, moderator Ellen Bromley and Democratic candidate Versha Munshi-South.

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