The Columbia school superintendent and school board president sent “a message of support” in a mass email Friday afternoon, responding to what they described as “an intentional effort to discredit, disgrace, and destroy the reputations” of the district.
The email, coauthored by Superintendent Peter Stiepleman and School Board President Helen Wade, was sent out of “a sense of urgency to clarify a particular topic” and to express “empathy and gratitude” toward the district’s employees.
Race Matters, Friends included a copy of the email in a news release that they shared with the Missourian on Saturday morning.
The message came after parents, students and advocates flooded the school board meeting Monday night, criticizing the district and its policies regarding students with special needs. The board, initially slated to vote on its restraint, seclusion and isolation policy, eventually postponed its decision after the testimonies. Board members at the meeting didn’t discuss the policy before sending the proposed language back to their policy committee.
“There appears to be an intentional campaign against the incredibly hardworking staff of Columbia Public Schools,” the message sent Friday reads.
The message concluded by praising the district’s staff: “We believe in each of you and your abilities to help every child become the very best. And more than anything, we are grateful for the work you do to make Columbia a community where all have the opportunities to thrive.”
Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association President Jessica Tierney, reached by phone Saturday, said the association appreciates the district’s continuous support and trust in teachers.
“I’m not really sure that I would use the word ‘intentional campaign,’ but I do feel like there are some community members who definitely have something against Columbia Public Schools,” Tierney said. “And this is the best and easiest way for them to voice their opinions.”
Tierney also added that the policies criticized Monday night only affect “a very small population of students.”
“In the overall system of Columbia Public Schools, we are always trying to do what is best for kids. That’s our end goal,” she said.
On the other hand, local advocates called the message problematic and divisive.
Lara Wakefield, activist and owner of SMARTER Steps, an educational consulting company, said the email pits teachers and parents against one another.
“Parents value teachers,” Wakefield said in a phone interview Saturday. “At the Monday night public comment, no teachers’ names were ever mentioned ... (Parents) didn’t have an issue with teachers.”
Wakefield said the public’s criticisms were directed at the district leadership and the school board.
Asked about her reaction to the email’s language, Wakefield said, “there’s an intentional campaign for parents to try to do better for our children.”
Race Matters, Friends, an activist group that has publicly criticized the district since the wrongful arrest of a black teenage girl at Smithton Middle School, also called the email “paranoid and defensive.”
The group has previously called for the resignation of the district’s chief equity officer, Carla London, citing the lack of transparency and accountability. They also criticized the lack of data that would demonstrate the efficacy of the district’s equity and restorative practice training.
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, the group’s president, said the letter further demonstrates the district’s unwillingness to work with concerned parents.
“We are not the problem because we asked questions,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “They work for us. They are public servants.”
District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark had not responded to questions from the Missourian by Saturday afternoon.
Supervising editor is Tynan Stewart.