School board official under fire for writing racial e-mail

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

Marysville School Board member Michael Kundu

The Marysville School District is one of many districts in the nation tackling an issue that is considered to be among the most important and current civil rights issues. Academic achievement gaps and the disparities in academic performance between low-income and minority students and their white counterparts has been a problem for school districts across the state.

“If we’re going to continue to be the world superpower, we have to invest in our human capital. People dismissed it when [people of color were] 5 percent of human capital, but what are you going to do when 50 percent of your human capital is [made up of] people of color?” said Lillian Ortiz-Self, chair of the State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

On May 12, 2009, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed Senate Bill 5973, which incorporates recommended plans for tackling the achievement gap. She charged the Achievement Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee (AGOAC) to see the plan through.

You’ve got mail

A wrench in the cogs has been the budget cuts in recent years. During the last two years, the Marysville school board cut $2.4 million from its program.

While board members have made closing the achievement gap for American Indian, Hispanic, special education, and low-income students among the seven district goals set for this year, they are forced to work within increasingly restrictive budgets.

“In order to move forward on the ‘District Goals’ (sic) we must work together to come to a mutual agreement on the wording and content,” wrote district board member Chris Nation in an e-mail to board members.

Nation’s e-mail offered research, and proposed that poverty is the driving factor behind the academic achievement gap, not race.

Board Director Michael Kundu followed with an e-mail sent on the morning of June 3.  The e-mail, with a subject line “race and achievement (please circulate)” (sic), cited the controversial work of scientist John Philippe Rushton, connecting learning ability with racial genetics as a way of suggesting that race could be tied to the achievement gap. He emphasized the need to apply slim resources to where they might make the most impact on broader groups of students. He also reminded board members to not forget about higher achieving students.

“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,” wrote Kundu in the e-mail.

Changes that need to be made

Within the last 10 years, like many districts in Washington state, Marysville has seen the demographic of its student body change. According to a 2010 report by the AGOAC, the white student population in Washington public schools has declined by 11 percent while the population of students of color has increased by 38 percent. In Marysville, the population of Latino students has risen to more than 5 percent in the last 10 years. White student enrollment has dropped by more than 8 percent. There is a steady increase of Asian, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and Black students. A disproportionate number of American Indian students are in special education programs. A high percentage of minority students fail to meet state averages for math and reading standards.

“We’ve had schools, which 20 years ago, were almost all white. They didn’t have to think about this issue then. However, now, it’s obvious that there are many changes that need to be made,” said Janice Greene, president of the Snohomish County NAACP.

When Ortiz-Self was in high school, she was repeatedly placed into clerical classes despite her interest in attending college. Some of the statements that she heard years ago in high school have been repeated to her by young students of color still facing similar challenges.

“I never went through high school believing that I was college material or having others believe that — from students or from staff,” said Ortiz-Self. “A lot of our students are feeling that way.”

“I think that type of thinking is damaging all around,” said Greene of Kundu’s e-mail. “What you’re doing is you’re stating the expectation of students — in saying they’re genetically predisposed to not being able to learn. When you lower your expectations of those students, you don’t get the best from those people, and it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Kyle Kinoshita, executive director of teaching and learning for the district, wrote to Kundu stating that he wholly disagrees with the theories of racial inequities proposed in Kundu’s e-mail.

“While the weight of accuracy lies on Rushton and his counterpart’s side, the implications of these theories are what, I think, worry more people in the field,” said Kundu in his reply to Kinoshita. “Anyway, my point in bringing all this out is not to promote discrimination, but to discuss other viable theories that could be contributing to the achievement gap — not for anything more but to spur thought and understanding of those factors.”

An inkling for public information

Within an hour after Kundu had clicked ‘send’ on his first e-mail, Nation and Kundu were notified that the NAACP filed a request for their e-mails to be released as public information.
“Well then, we’d better quickly comply

with their request,” Kundu said in his reply to the request. “After all, these communications should all be open to the public.”

The short time in which the NAACP was able to catch wind of the discussion led Kundu to believe that Board President Sherri Crenshaw leaked the e-mails to the NAACP.

“Sherri, since this is related to your personal agenda, would you be willing to disclose whether you had anything to do with this?” said Kundu in the same reply. “I can’t imagine how any group would have learned that we were engaged in a discussion about this, unless someone on the board or administration forwarded these e-mails on.”

Crenshaw did not respond to the e-mail.

“Her intent was actually to create a controversial spin on this in order to polarize people, to get really angry people out there to sensationalize this issue because this has been her special interest issue since she started on the school board,” said Kundu.

“There is nothing really private when you’re an elected official. He wrote it to the school officials. I got an inkling of it, and I asked for public disclosure,” said Janice Greene, president of the Snohomish County NAACP.

“Anybody that works in the school system needs to understand that there are disclosure laws and anybody can ask for all e-mails sent about any student in our system. Part of that is because your constituents have a right to know about what you’re saying on their behalf. This isn’t about him being at home and having a private conversation. He is using the system, talking to other officials about his point of view,” said Ortiz-Self.

What happens in Marysville …

The June 7 board meeting drew many speakers from the audience and vigorous debates about race. Some of the speakers included Self-Ortiz, Greene, and other members of the NAACP. A letter from Kinuko Noborikawa, chair of the Communities of Color Coalition, was read aloud to the board.

“[Rushton’s study was] not only discriminatory but resembles white supremacist ideology that takes us back to the time of segregation,” said Ortiz-Self at the meeting.

Kundu left the board meeting early, stating that Crenshaw had mischaracterized his e-mails.

“I do a lot of things in stream-of-consciousness. That is precisely the way I operate. That is the way the people that have worked with me on the board for seven years have seen me operate. That was sort of in the spirit of the intention that I had when I got into this free form debate with Chris Nation and Kyle Kinoshita,” said Kundu.

“There was no intention for racism,” said Kundu. “There was a real philosophical intent to have a dialogue in this Greek senate type format where dialogue is central to understanding and resolution, but that doesn’t happen in Marysville.”

Crenshaw read Kundu’s e-mail to the remaining audience. “I was offended,” said Crenshaw after reading the e-mail. “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 can be this ignorant.”

Kundu’s departure was followed by board member Darci Becker, who described Crenshaw’s comments as personal attacks against Kundu. The meeting ended near 11:00 p.m., almost four and half hours after it had started. ♦

See this story continued next week in part 2, which includes an exclusive interview with Michael Kundu.

Tiffany Ran can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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