In May, word leaked that the Lockport School District had submitted a $500,000 funding request to the New York Department of Education, to start a My Brother’s Keeper project here. That state funding is part of a national program launched by President Obama and its aim is to offer mentoring and support to boys and young men of color. Nationwide, and locally as well, these are students who suffer from higher dropout rates and other challenges.
Even though the funds are supposed to directly target help to these students, the district never bothered to speak with any of their families about how best to use that money. The district superintendent and her team never even bothered to speak with the only non-white person on the Board of Education, Mrs. Renee Cheatham. In fact, district staff kept the whole thing a closely kept secret, for months. Why?
To qualify for those state funds the district is required to set up formal partnerships with community organizations that have the local experience and knowledge needed to help carry out the program. But the school district never spoke to any of the organizations in Lockport that actually do this work, groups like New Beginnings that have been doing effective youth mentoring here for years. Instead, the superintendent jumped right over them and signed contracts funneling the funds to a pair of consultants in Buffalo with no history in Lockport at all. Again, why?
A justified public furor erupted over all this and in response the Board of Education announced that it would hold a public presentation about the project. Last Wednesday evening at 6:15 p.m., the announced time, about two dozen parents and grandparents from the Black community sat down in the Lockport High School auditorium to listen and to speak. Almost an hour later they were still there waiting while the superintendent and board were locked off behind closed doors rehearsing. Frustrated parents finally went over and knocked on the locked door, and demanded that school officials begin the presentation they had promised.
The president of the board offered up the excuse that they had ‘lost track of time,’ as if a room full of adults had neither a watch nor a phone equipped with a clock. The disrespect was clear.
Later, the district grant writer who developed the proposal was asked why she and the superintendent hadn’t reached out to any parents or organizations in the Black community as they developed the project. She explained that they just weren’t a part of her ‘personal network.’ Let that sink in a moment.
They completely ignored the families that this project is supposed to serve because they didn’t know who to call? Why didn’t they begin by reaching out to Mrs. Cheatham? Why didn’t they reach out to her husband, Ron Cheatham, who has years of experience supporting these boys in our district as a counselor at Aaron Mossell (North Park) Junior High?
In the presentation, the district said that this was exactly what the money would be for – to improve the district’s communication with Black and other minority families. Just to be clear, the Lockport School District does not need a half million dollars in state taxpayer funds to have a conversation with these families, or any others. The superintendent just needs to understand that it is part of the job she is paid to do.
Sadly, all this is too familiar. This is exactly how the school district ended up wasting $2.7 million on its foolish facial recognition surveillance system, that it can’t even turn on and use. District officials went after state dollars, spoke with no one in the community, kept it quiet, and flushed a fortune down the toilet. Have they learned nothing?
At last week’s board meeting, a gentleman named Steve Huston told the board, “How many times in the past have you people lied to get money by saying you want to help us?” In a sentiment echoed by all the other speakers, he added, “You people had no intention of communicating with the Black community. You did what you wanted to do.”
Even the superintendent understands that the only option now is to throw away the project they submitted and start over. And this time the district needs to include parents, students, and teachers of color from the start, and in a serious way.
But the problem all this reveals goes much deeper than one project. Is the district’s leadership so oblivious that it didn’t understand the importance of speaking with the families this project is aimed to support, or was it a deliberate and calculated act of exclusion? Either way, it is not how a public school system is supposed to serve the community. It is an approach to race, respect and representation that belongs to the 1950s, not 2021. Changing that is going to take more than a long Power Point presentation or pretty words of apology. It is going to take real action from the community – the whole community.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.