Beacon School Board Adds One, But Not Two

Jasmine Johnson is sworn in

Jasmine Johnson is sworn in on Thursday (Oct. 1) by District Clerk Kelly Pologe to serve on the school board. (Photo by Meredith Heuer)

Some audience members critical of decision

The Beacon school board, meeting in person for the first time since March, on Tuesday (Sept. 29) appointed Jasmine Johnson to fill one of two vacancies. 

Before appointing Johnson, and despite opposition from some members of the audience of about 50 spectators in a socially distanced Seeger Theater at Beacon High School, the board opted to restart the application process for the second vacancy on the nine-seat panel. 

Johnson, a 2006 Beacon High graduate, was one of four candidates who applied after Michael Rutkoske resigned in July. Her appointment continues until the next district election, scheduled for May 18, when the seat will be on the ballot. 

The second vacancy, created when James Case-Leal resigned last week, could be filled within a month. In a letter, Case-Leal said he was leaving to make way for Johnson and John Galloway Jr., “two well-qualified candidates of color, to both be appointed,” but board President Meredith Heuer said the district would accept applications until Oct. 9 for Case-Leal’s seat and the board would interview candidates during its Oct. 13 meeting. 

The resignations add complexity to next year’s elections. In addition to the two seats that were vacated, the seats held by Flora Stadler and Elissa Betterbid will be on the ballot as they complete their three-year terms. 

The top three vote-getters will serve three-year terms and the fourth-place finisher will complete Rutkoske’s term, which was to end in 2022. 

The Beacon school board appointed one member but said it would continue to accept applications for a second vacancy. (Photo by J. Simms)

The other three candidates for the seat filled by Johnson — Galloway, Barbara Fisher and Travis Fisher — will be considered for Case-Leal’s seat. 

That decision did little on Tuesday to pacify some spectators who wanted Johnson and Galloway appointed together. (A motion to appoint Galloway failed, 5-2, moments before Johnson was appointed unanimously.) Doing so would have diversified a nearly all-white board that audience members said sorely needs it. 

“The people in charge do not represent the people in this community, and this needs to change,” said Justice McCray, an organizer of Beacon 4 Black Lives. “Look at the board and look at the people in this room. You don’t need one Black person; you don’t need two Black people. You need six Black people.”

The tension boiled over for a moment after the board agreed to re-advertise Case-Leal’s seat rather than fill it immediately. Ali Muhammad, a former Beacon City Council member who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2018, shouted from the audience: “You’re going to make us sit through this process again, no matter who you pick. You can appoint two people today, and that’s what we want. You’re disrespecting every single person who showed up here.”

Statement from School Board President

On Friday (Oct. 2), Meredith Heuer, president of the Beacon school board, released this statement:

“On Tuesday night, the Beacon school board voted 6-1 to repeat a process for appointment that we had used to fill our previous opening from July. The process used was originally created in 2016 after the resignation of two board members and our board created an ad hoc committee in August to amend it. I am glad that we had the opportunity to improve the application by adding our board goals and strategic plan because they have been instrumental in guiding our administrators in their work.

“In my opinion, we are witnessing, at all levels of government, the chaos that ensues when process is not followed. Personally, I wish that our federal government were following a process for the appointment of our next Supreme Court justice. Some are following Minneapolis’ effort and subsequent failure to ‘change policing as we know it’ because elected leaders wanted to appease their constituents and/or support their personal agendas without first defining the process that would lead them to the change they sought. That is not governance. We are a small governing body but I believe process is just as important to our board because it leaves room for both participation of our community and our own accountability.”

Muhammad and Barbara Fisher, who was also in the audience, began shouting at each other, causing Heuer to call a brief recess until the arguing stopped. 

Of the district’s 2,841 students in 2018-19, 31 percent were Latino, 16 percent were African American, 7 percent were multiracial and 3 percent were Asian. Of the staff, according to data on the district website, 81 percent are white, 11 percent Latino and 7 percent African American. 

Although the district still has a “long, long way to go,” it has made progress addressing racial inequities, Superintendent Matt Landahl said. About 10 teachers are typically hired each summer, and this year four of the 10 were Black, he said. The year before it had been two of 10. 

In addition, the district has also implemented a number of “restorative practices,” including the creation of “talking circles” for students to discuss race and other issues; adding students to schools’ Equity Leadership Teams; and the ongoing work to adjust curriculum to make it more culturally relevant to all students.

“It feels incremental, and we need to do a lot more,” Landahl said. “We need to listen more, and we need to learn more.”

Jasmine Johnson

Johnson with her parents, Myra and Steven Burrows (Photo by Meredith Heuer)

One of the speakers on Tuesday was Ed McNair, whose mother, Yvonne, ran unsuccessfully for the school board, once in the 1980s and again in 2014. “Some of you don’t know all of your community, and that’s not your fault,” he said. “But think how much you could learn and benefit by hearing about issues you never even knew existed.”

Referring to “blackballing” he said his mother faced when she ran, McNair said, “I would hope that today, in the climate we’re in, that those thoughts have changed. Let’s not make that same mistake. When it happened in the past, I was young and didn’t understand the seriousness and severity of the position. As I’ve grown older, I can’t accept that anymore.”

Later in the meeting, Heuer said the district’s growth, including its attempts to diversify, feels like “the very, very, very early stages of not even a marathon, but one of those crazy 100-mile runs.” However, she cautioned that hastily filling Case-Leal’s seat a week after his resignation could appear questionable. 

She recalled a meeting in 2016, when at 11:30 p.m. a board member tried to fill a vacancy that had opened the same day with another board member who had just lost a bid for re-election. 

“I really think process is important to remember here,” Heuer said. In 2016, “it did not look transparent. It felt very underhanded.”

4 thoughts on “Beacon School Board Adds One, But Not Two

  1. Thanks for writing this article. It compares the student population demographics to district staff. Does the latter demographic breakdown change significantly if one were to focus specifically on district teachers? If so, I think that is relevant context here. Many organizations share disaggregated data in order to appear more diverse (tech companies do this regularly, for example), and because most of the focus of diversity is on in-classroom staff and district leadership, I wonder if those numbers look less positive for the Beacon school district than the overall numbers, which would include various other administrative staff.

    • The breakdown doesn’t change significantly when isolated to instructional staff. The stats are on the district website (and are a couple of years old), but for all instructional staff, 258 are white out of 297 total. The next-highest is Latino, with 24 and then African American at 9. By my math, that’s about 87 percent white, so a little higher than the overall number in the article.

      • Thanks for the follow-up. At least to me, single-digit percentages for Black and brown instructional staff (8 percent Latino, 3 percent African American, based on the above numbers) connotes even greater inequity than the original article conveys. (As a thought experiment, if every Black instructional staff member in the district had a lunch meeting, they’d only need to buy one large pizza to share between them.) I remember Matt Landahl saying in the last meeting that the Beacon City School District has somewhat increased the rate of hiring of Black teachers, but I neglected to take note of exact numbers, but I get the impression we’d be at two medium pizzas now. Thanks again, Jeff. We all appreciate your work.