GREEN BAY – A mass of white at the doors of the Green Bay School District offices on Friday evening represented a united group of parents, students and grassroots leaders who oppose the school district’s facilities plan that recommends shuttering 11 schools.
The crowd donned white shirts and wore stickers that read, “Stop Schema 12/We stand united!/Making history together” and held signs like “U 4got Us” and “I am Hmong” as they listened to four speakers express concerns of how the district’s Facilities Task Force came to its plans, ahead of a special School Board meeting on Monday.
“Today is a historic day because we are standing here in solidarity, from all backgrounds from all ages, and we are here to send one message,” said Steph Guzman, a member of Northeast Wisconsin Latino Education Task Force, or NEWLET.
NEWLET’s message, calling for a fair and equitable process to decide the future of the district, runs counter to how the district’s Facilities Task Force came to its decision, speakers said Friday evening. The speakers — Dr. Yolo Diaz, a pediatrician out of De Pere; Lisa Kardish, a parent of a student at Leonardo da Vinci School for Gifted Learners; Leah Weakley, a parent of a student at Wequiock Elementary School; and Mary Lou Yang, a nurse at a local mental health facility — slammed Schema 12’s process and felt the district did not take into account Green Bay’s unique majority-minority school district.
Leonardo da Vinci Elementary and Wequiock Elementary are two of the schools the Facilities Task Force is recommending close.
Speakers punctuated their talks with the message, “Vote No on Schema 12,” in reference to the plan the Facilities Task Force recommended to the board, which on Monday could vote on Schema 12. “Stop the vote. Bring us into your process. As stakeholders in the education system, we deserve to have a say in the decisions that affect our children’s future and the future of all Green Bay communities,” Weakley said.
A special School Board meeting is scheduled for Monday, with a 4:30 p.m. closed session, followed by an open session at 5 p.m. One of the agenda items calls for discussion and action on the “Facilities Master Planning Task Force Recommendations.”
However, the School Board has until January to vote, according to a memo from Interim Superintendent Vicki Bayer. “By January of 2024 the Board of Education must make decisions to address a projected budget deficit of $20 million in the 2023-24 fiscal year,” says the memo attached to the agenda. “The financial savings made in regard to the facilities decisions will be subtracted from the projected deficit total, leaving decisions to be made to address any remaining deficit.”
Speakers cite lack of community input in facilities plan
The development of Schema 12 raised concerns among many community members, especially people of color. Diaz said. The task force didn’t collect racial and ethnic demographic data for each school, she said, although The Cooperative Strategies did obtain attendance demographics and boundary/enrollment demographics in its Feb. 22 reports, “Enrollment Projections Report by School of Attendance” and “Enrollment Projections Report by Boundary of Residence,” respectively.
Diaz also challenged a survey that went out to residents regarding the budget process, stating that the questions needed to be framed more accurately to reflect their planning developments and distributed in languages that represented the community, such as Spanish, Hmong and Somali. Only 50 surveys were returned in Spanish, according to the executive summary. In total, 3,664 responded to the survey.
More than 19,000 students are enrolled in the Green Bay School District.
“The inadequate data provided by the Green Bay-area public schools need to be addressed before moving forward,” Diaz said. “The board of education must recognize and address Latino parents’ language barrier with the district. The lack of communication and the failure to provide a Spanish public forum has excluded the Latino community from engaging in this process.”
Mary Lou Yang, a Hmong resident who held up a sign that read, “I Am Hmong,” spoke about the lack of Hmong representation on the Facilities Task Force, despite Asian students making up 5,500 of the student body in school district, or nearly 30%.
The task force consisted of 26 members, selected by the school district. The majority of the members are white, despite 60% of the district’s student population being students of color.
“I had to address my Hmong community because a lot of my community members do not know about this,” Yang said.
Yang said she only became aware of the recommendations when she attended a May 24 meeting at Washington Middle School.
Kardish, a mother representing Leonardo Da Vinci Elementary, meanwhile, focused on where her tax dollars are going. She sympathized with the district’s looming $20 million budget deficit and thanked the Facilities Task Force for “doing the best they could with the data and parameters they were provided.”
Still, she questioned the choice to close down schools when the district could be asking so many other questions in the name of preserving vital learning spaces.
“We must dig deeper. We must evaluate spending at the district building and not just at the school level,” Kardish said. “We must find out why over 2,000 students enroll out of our district every year and find a way to bring them home.”
Speakers warn closures will impact learning outcomes for Green Bay students
The Facilities Task Force was meant to look at the brick and mortar of the facilities, Bayer has said.
But Kardish took issue with this term and reasoning. “The district has repeated their mantra that this was to be a bricks-and-mortar decision. Nothing else,” she said. “We are a school district. Our purpose is to educate our children. The district needs to understand that it can never be just about bricks and mortar.”
Students, Weakley said, should not be crowded into classrooms for the sake of filling classrooms to maximum capacity.
“The unjust process of the district task force affects more people than we’ll ever know,” Weakley said.
Gratzia Villarroel told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that such a change in school facilities will be an “incredible shock to the whole community.” Villarroel, also a member of NEWLET, said such closures will mean longer travel times for students, a predicament compounded by the fact that schools are struggling to hire bus drivers.
“There’s going to be a lot of challenges that the school district has not looked into,” Villarroel said.
One more meeting opportunity before the board’s potential vote
When Yang realized that the Hmong community may not know the future fates of their children, she took to social media. In Hmong, she identified the 11 schools recommended to close, the School Board special meeting on Monday when a vote could take place, the trajectory of decisions thus far and the ways in which other community stakeholders felt “blindsided” due to a lack of documentation and translations.
Yang also announced there will be an informational meeting to discuss Schema 12 in Hmong and English at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Hmong Center of Green Bay, 401 Ninth St.
“A lot of us in the Asian community are in the dark,” Yang said. “You guys forgot about us. We have been in Green Bay for the longest time. We have roots, we have established businesses, we have leaders in the Green Bay area, but not one Hmong person on the 26-person task force?”
After the press event, Guzman said NEWLET and stakeholders in the community plan to attend the School Board meeting on Monday. Although there won’t be a public forum opportunity, she said it’s important to be there in silent protest of Schema 12.
“We’re planning to pack this place. Silent protest is the only option we’ll have at that point,” Guzman said.
Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at email@example.com or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.