Urbana Schools Staff Criticize School Board Over Audit Report

The Urbana District 116 Board of Education and administrators during a public meeting of the board held on Nov. 20, 2018.

The Urbana District 116 Board of Education and administrators during a public meeting of the board held on Nov. 20, 2018.

Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Public Media

The Urbana District 116 Board of Education faced criticism from staff members at school board meeting Tuesday night following recent reports from Illinois Public Media that they requested an audit of district hiring practices. The audit targeted a handful of positions mostly held by people of color.

The three staff members who spoke at during the public comment portion of the meeting say the list of positions under the audit is commonly referred to as the “black list.” M.C. Neal, the district’s director of information and technology, told the board he believes he’s on the list. The audit report obtained Illinois Public Media lists Neal’s position as one of those reviewed under the audit.

Neal told the board that prior to Illinois Public Media’s reporting on the audit report there were rumors circulated among school staff of its existence.

“I felt the board needed to know how hurtful, insulting, degrading and debilitating of a work environment the district has become for someone on the “black list,” or, again, just rumored to be on the “black list,” Neal said.

Neal described whispers in school building hallways “about how all the recent black hires are not qualified for their jobs, about how they are all under investigation and won’t be long for the district, and about how the board has hired a law firm to make sure this is seen through.”

“Just imagine the undermining that can mean for someone such as a director trying to run a department,” he said. “Imagine people within that department second guessing the direction the director is steering the department in because of these whispers about a 'black list.'”

Neal said the mere rumors of the audit had led to a “toxic work environment” for minority new hires in the district.

“Additionally, I can only imagine the disgust of minorities considering to apply for a job in the district when they see stories of ‘black lists’ and minority reports in news articles,” he said.

Neal also addressed the board’s assertion in a recent statement that the audit had nothing to do with race, but was simply the result of concerns brought to the board about specific hires. He said he found it difficult to believe the review wasn’t racially motivated.

“For an organization that claims a strong focus on attracting and retaining people of color, what exactly is the board going to do in the wake of this ‘black list,’ he said. “If race wasn’t a factor in regard to which names were put on the list, it definitely has become a part of the outcome.”

Tina Whobrey, a teacher in the district, asked the board to confirm the information provided in Illinois Public Media’s reporting on the issue. (While the board issued a statement in direct response to Illinois Public Media reporting, they did not dispute any of the facts outlined in the story.)

“I would question the idea of race not playing a role in (the audit),” Whobrey said. She asked the board why, when the positions were brought to their attention, that before going to legal counsel, the fact that nearly all of them were held by people of color “was not a red flag.”

Guadalupe Ricconi, the district’s director of elementary bilingual programs, questioned the board’s commitment to racial equity, specifically its mission to recruit and retain more staff members who reflect the racial make up the Urbana student body.

Regardless of the board’s intent, Ricconi said the audit “became about race.”

“To normalize such a racialized practice is to demonstrate the Urbana School District 116 Board of Education is all about saying the word equity, but not about implementing the word equity,” she said.

The board did not respond to the comments from staff members. Later in their meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve a resolution of commitment to racial equity in the district.

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Story source: WILL