School board meetings in Chaska have become a popular Monday evening event for community members — particularly among those deeply entrenched in a debate over the new equity work that the Eastern Carver County Schools district has embarked upon.
That work seeks to address growing racial tensions in the district, which serves the cities of Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska and Victoria. It’s also attracted quite a bit of media attention over the past year.
Earlier this month, six black students and their families had filed a federal lawsuit against the district claiming the district failed to respond to multiple counts of racial discrimination. A few days later, the district posted a statement on its website, denying the allegations of wrongdoing and announcing that it plans to “defend itself accordingly in federal court.” Not long after that, the controversy was further stirred when a conservative website posted a video taking aim at the district’s equity efforts.
Video stirs tensions
At the board meeting Monday, bracing for a tense public comment session, the district decided to have three police officers stationed near the boardroom entrance. By the time the meeting began, the officers had been relegated to the hallway, as community members, parents and educators jockeyed for space to stand in the packed room.
The meeting opened with Board Chair Tim Klein reading some prepared remarks, including an assertion that the district is committed to continuing its new equity initiative.
It’s a message that’s been well received — albeit with a dose of skepticism — by the members of the parent and community group known as ROAR, Residents Organizing Against Racism, who organized last winter to push for change in the district.
It’s been less well-received by a large base of community members and allied outsiders who are intent upon bringing the equity work to a halt, sentiments that were recently stoked by an 18-minute video produced by the website Alpha News. Titled “Eastern Carver Co. Schools Exposed,” the video was published on Sept. 16 and quickly went viral.
The video largely attempts to undermine the new equity work by discrediting the experts brought in to conduct the district’s equity audit and action plan, questioning the associated costs. It also raises fears of Islamic indoctrination and white shaming in the schools.
Nearly two minutes into the video, an anonymous district parent recaps the build-up to the district’s equity efforts, including a petition for action created by the ROAR group. “This petition began a series of events which allowed a toxic agenda into the schools — an agenda called equity,” the speaker said. Further in, that same speaker raises concerns about Muhammad Khalifa, the nationally recognized expert brought in as a consultant to perform an equity audit of the district, citing a white paper published under his name that she calls “a blueprint for elevating the culture of Islam above American culture in the schools.”
The video, which has more than 66,000 views and 1,400 shares on the Alpha News Facebook page, also seeks to defeat the upcoming district referendum.
The district released a lengthy response on Sept. 17, refuting most of the assertions made in the video, with one exception — conceding that communication regarding an equity survey sent to students could have been handled better.
“Frankly, the number of erroneous and grossly misleading claims were too numerous to address in their totality,” Klein said. “Unfortunately, this glossy professional video has had the desired effect to spur some concerns. I have spoken to a number of community members about it, and the feedback has been heartening, as an overwhelming number of parents have been able to discern rumor from reality. And to understand that it was an attempt to foment fear and division, in order to further a certain point of view.”
In addressing the board during his three-minute public comment slot Monday night, Chris McCormick, a Victoria resident, said he’s concerned the district’s “efforts related to diversity, inclusion and equity are not in the best interest” of his elementary-aged children who attend district schools, or of any other students in the district. He called the efficacy of such efforts into question by asserting there is no data to back it up.
“Diversity, inclusivity and equity may sound appealing when described in the euphemistic terms used in district communications, but critical race theory and white privilege and equality of outcome — or equity — are the pillars of this dangerous political ideology and should have no place in our schools,” he said, labeling white privilege a “racial slur” and raising concerns that white teachers partaking in equity training have expressed feeling “white shame.”
Donta Hughes, a parent serving on the district’s Equity Advisory Council, also spoke. He first addressed the board, noting he intends to continue to hold it accountable to doing the equity work it’s embarked upon and acknowledging that his kids can already feel a positive impact of that work this school year.
He then turned to face the audience, to deliver another message.
“We know that Chaska is a good place. But we have people coming here telling lies month after month,” he said. “Chaska, we’re better than that. What’s the problem with us having a conversation with each other? If I say something you don’t agree with, that’s fine. I can debate and it will never come out of a place of hate.”
Student Council President, Jacob Talty addressed the Alpha News video more directly, calling it “the most outwardly Islamaphobic and racist propaganda” he’s ever seen.
No comment from Alpha News
The video in question was written by “Alpha News Staff,” and leads to no editors or reporters who might be contacted.
MinnPost made three attempts to contact an Alpha News spokesperson to answer questions about the video, but all requests were either ignored or denied. The efforts included an email, a Facebook message and an attempt to connect with a spokesperson through an Alpha News affiliate present at the board meeting Monday evening, from which Alpha News live streamed the public comments session on its Facebook page.
One attempt to get someone from the site to comment of the video was answered with a text stating that contact information for whoever produced the video “is not available to give out.”
The mysteriousness behind Alpha News has been fairly consistent since its launch in the spring of 2015, says Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota who has written for various local media outlets, including MinnPost.
“I think that’s by design,” he said. “I think that’s because their target audience — what they’re trying to shape, who they’re trying to motivate by these stories — lends itself to a need to have a kind of mysterious, nebulous organization behind it.”
In blog posts for the Star Tribune in 2015, Brodkorb highlighted ties Alpha News leadership had to the Freedom Club, a local conservative group. “They want to go out there and present themselves as kind of a reputable — more a traditional media outlet. But they’re looking at stories through a very, very specific lens,” he said, noting it’s focused on a conservative agenda. “They certainly have a strong editorial slant. Sometimes people see that. Other times they don’t.”
‘A part of the growing pains’
An early portion of the Alpha News video focuses on the district’s newly hired director of equity and inclusion, Keith Brooks, who came on board in July. In the video, Don Huizenga, identified as a Carver County taxpayer, warns viewers that Brooks “pushes equity — not equality” and characterizes the buzzword as a threat to white students.
“Some students will be lifted up artificially while others will be suppressed and shamed because equity strives for the same ‘measurable outcomes’ for all, which … is unachievable, given the basic differences in all of us,” he said. He then attacks Brooks’ credentials, as a series of soundbites taken from an event Brooks spoke at in 2016 titled “Critical Race Theory —Fact vs. Feeling,” are shown out of context.
Brooks says that sort of targeted attack isn’t new. Not does he find it all that surprising. Even prior to accepting his current job with the district, he’d begun receiving threatening communications, he says. “It is a little disconcerting, but I think that’s a part of the work,” he said in a phone interview. “And I also think it’s a part of the larger context of when a predominantly white community shifts to being a diverse community. These are a part of the growing pains.”
He considers himself an educator — not an agitator or social activist that others have labeled him.
At the next board meeting, Brooks said he’ll be submitting the main goals and action items of the new three-year equity plan, slated to launch in 2020. It consists of five main pillars, which encompass everything from building a common language around equity and improving school climate to investing more in diverse curriculum and youth leadership development.
These efforts are not happening in isolation, Brooks notes. They are the sorts of strategies that districts across the metro area — including 41 that are involved in an equity effort called Reimagine Minnesota — are in the midst of implementing.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, the professional organization spearheading the Reimagine Minnesota initiative, says that pushback to equity work commonly stems from “a misunderstanding of what the work is,” notably the false notion that “equity work means one group has to win and another group has to lose.”
And the work is only gaining more traction in Minnesota districts, he said, despite the pushback. “It really is at the direction of the state, too,” Croonquist said, noting equity work is baked into the state’s World’s Best Workforce goals. “I think it’s a pretty unified agenda, at the state level and at the local district level.”