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Marysville School Board e-mail sparks controversy

MARYSVILLE - A Marysville School District Board member's e-mails drew condemnation and inspired vigorous debates on racial issues during the Board's regular June 7 meeting.

Board member Chris Nation was criticized by Lillian Ortiz-Self, chair of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, for addressing the ethnic academic achievement gap "as merely a poverty issue," in her words. However, Ortiz-Self joined Janice Greene, president of the Snohomish County branch of the NAACP, in devoting the majority of their expressed concerns to the words of Board member Michael Kundu for his suggestions that academic potential could be rooted in genetics.

In an e-mail dated June 3 that Kundu sent to Nation and Kyle Kinoshita, executive director of teaching and learning for the Marysville School District, Kundu cited the work of John Philippe Rushton, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, as evidence that certain ethnic groups possess biological advantages and disadvantages compared to others, in areas including brain sizes and intelligence levels.

"I think what is safe to draw from this is that there is a definitive factor played by racial genetics in intellectual achievement, but we, as a society, are striving to offset that foundation by increasing educational and social opportunities to 'offset' the racial achievement gap," Kundu wrote in the e-mail, whose subject line was "race and achievement (please circulate)."

Ortiz-Self asserted that Rushton's study was "not only discriminatory but resembles white supremacist ideology that takes us back to the time of segregation." Speaking on behalf of the NAACP, Greene deemed Kundu's remarks "offensive, not in accord with the mainstream of modern U.S. society, and certainly not in the equitable interest of all Marysville School District students." Greene went on to declare that Rushton "is a known white supremacist and that his pseudo-scientific theory has been effectively and consistently debunked by well regarded scientists."

Ortiz-Self and Greene were not alone in their testimony. They were joined by enough speakers from the audience to help extend the Board's meeting until nearly 11 p.m., almost four and a half hours after it had started. Ben Young read a letter written by Kinuko Noborikawa, chair of the Communities of Color Coalition, who could not attend the Board meeting. Noborikawa's letter likewise expressed "grave concern" regarding Kundu's citations of Rushton and quoted the conclusions of 2002 Washington State School Director's Association President Connie Fletcher, who argued that allocations of resources should be based not on equal measurements, but on the degree of need of each student.

"Students are educated to the level that the community allows," said Oscar Eason Jr., state conference president of the NAACP. "Messages like this are damaging to youth because they place in the minds of teachers the idea that these kids are incapable of learning, so they just keep getting passed on to the next grade, because they're never expected to succeed."

Bill Reed, an NAACP member who touted his 20 years of involvement in the local community and its education, agreed with Eason that expectations can play a significant role in minority achievement.

"What cuts across all people of color is that we're not expected to amount to much, whereas my white friends were all expected to be successful," Reed said. "Even when we do attain success, we're still seen as 'less than.' I'm accomplished. I've worked my butt off. But at least once a week, I still get a look from someone that says, 'Why are you here?'"

Just as Ortiz-Self was told 25 years ago by a high school counselor that she should take clerical classes because she wasn't "college material," so too was Marysville-Pilchuck High School Class of 1989 graduate Deborah Parker, a Tulalip Tribal member, told by a school counselor that she should attend the Everett beauty school because "your people need to take better care of themselves."

"My son is graduating this year, and he was told something similar," Parker said.

"It's 25 years later, and school counselors and teachers are still telling students they're not 'college material' based on the color of their skin," Ortiz-Self said.

Board members Darci Becker and Cindy Erickson objected to the guest speakers' focus on race, with Erickson expressing concerns that students who didn't fall into certain categories could fall through the cracks, while Becker noted that her own child faces learning difficulties in spite of being white and economically comfortable.

"Diversity is not only about race," Becker said. "It feels like I'm being punished for being white."

Nation clarified that he doesn't believe that poverty is the sole factor in the achievement gap, but at the same time, he considered it a useful common denominator.

"I'm scared that if we add a bunch of categories, we're going to offend somebody by leaving them out," Nation said.

Kundu likewise emphasized that he doesn't consider biology to be the only cause of the achievement gap, but even as he acknowledged Rushton's racism, he defended genetics as one of a number of possible influences, along with a student's family dynamics and relative economic prosperity.

"We don't know what's behind the achievement gap," Kundu said. "If we did, every school district would be making significant progress in correcting it. No one has the formula for it. A lot of people have elements of the formula, but this achievement gap has been around for decades. I'm saying almost precisely the same things as a lot of you."

Board President Sherri Crenshaw confessed her frustration with what she went "out of my way not to say was underlying racism," even as she pointed to the disproportionate number of Native Americans in special education in the school district, as well as the disproportionate percentages of minority students in the Marysville School District who are failing to meet reading and math standards, when compared to both their white peers in the school district and the state averages for those minority groups.

Kundu left before the end of the Board meeting after accusing Crenshaw of "mischaracterizing" his e-mails, while Becker left shortly following Kundu after describing Crenshaw's remarks as "personal attacks" against Kundu. In response, Crenshaw read the first of Kundu's e-mails to the remaining audience.

"I was offended," Crenshaw said after reading the e-mail aloud. "I think it's racist. I saw it as my responsibility to speak up and let you know that people who are making decisions about your children could be this ignorant."

Marysville School District Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland freely admitted that not all of the school district's students are being reached, but he pledged his "personal commitment to seeing every student of color succeed." To that end, he suggested that one goal might be to increase the number of students of color in AP classes.

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