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The Iowa City school board will investigate how to improve the working environment at Lucas Elementary after fielding accusations of racial discrimination from district employees and community members. 

The board agreed the district should investigate the workplace culture at a workshop meeting Tuesday, but have not pinned down details about who will conduct any such audit. 

Their discussion comes as board members have fielded concerns, by staff and community members, of racial discrimination on the campus, the specifics of which district officials have not detailed. Some board members have also pointed to the campus’ high staff turnover rate: Five principals have left the campus in nine years. 

Current Lucas Principal Kathy Jenkins could not be reached for comment. Jenkins, who is black, has been on administrative leave since December. ICCSD administrators did not answer inquiries about why Jenkins left the school district but said the leave is not discipline-related. School board members anticipate Jenkins will return to the campus in the fall. 

In recent weeks, The Black Voices Project, a local advocacy group, has publicly called for ICCSD to bring in “neutral, expert investigators” to audit the school district for a “pattern of mistreatment” toward administrators of color. Members of the group could not be reached for comment. 

In a public statement addressed to the school board, the Black Voices Project accuses the school district of enabling a demeaning, “hostile” work environment for staff of color.

In the statement, the community group says administrators of color are more likely than their peers to face both insubordinate behaviors from staff and micromanagement by district administrators. 

“Their judgment has been second-guessed and their leadership undermined when district administrators receive and validate complaints from parents and building staff rather than dismissing petty complaints or directing the complainant back to the principal to address the issue,” reads the statement.

School board members met with several teachers at a Black Voices Project meeting Monday. 

“They all said the same thing,” said school board member Lisa Williams during Tuesday’s meeting. “That they don’t feel supported.”

At the workshop meeting, functionally a public brainstorming session, school board members said they have not yet determined who they want to bring in for the investigation, but all want an independent, third party to do the audit. Board members would like to have an auditor identified and selected by March 1.

Board members discussed the high turnover rates in other school districts where principals have implemented restorative justice practices and the need for an audit to uncover ways to improve the campus.  

“This is us stepping in, not to point fingers but to find solutions,” board member Shawn Eyestone said. “We want our principals to be thinking ‘what am I going to do today, not how am I going to get through the day.'”

Community members have previously come to the school board with concerns around the treatment of a principal of color. In public comments during the May of 2018, two community members accused the district of inadequately supporting North West Junior High’s principal, a black woman, and ultimately pushing her out of the position. The principal, who has since been promoted to another administrative position, declined to be interviewed at the time, as did other school district leaders.

School Board member Ruthina Malone, who also declined to comment on the change in administration at NWJH two years ago, alluded to a struggle in the district to support staff of color at a summer school board retreat in June of 2018. 

“We do a horrible job at retaining and actually making teachers and administrators of color feel accepted into our community and supported,” she said in 2018. “It’s not happening. … We have to provide some kind of support.”

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