School board okays diversity policy after wording is criticized by new trustees, amendment defeated


The Pelham school board approved a proposed diversity policy while meeting in Alumni Hall.

The Pelham Board of Education unanimously adopted a diversity, equity and inclusion policy after its third reading Tuesday, but not before the two newly sworn-in trustees criticized language in it and voted for a motion to amend it that was defeated 5-2.

In the school board’s annual reorganization meeting that preceded the regular meeting, Jessica DeDomenico and Sue Bratone-Childs were re-elected board president and vice president, respectively. The votes were unanimous.

Michael Owen-Michaane, who was sworn in that night as a trustee, said that the definitions in the diversity, equity and inclusion policy (DEI) should be taken from the New York State Board of Regents’ recommended language. He made a motion to amend the policy.

“I believe it would be best practice to be in compliance with the Board of Regents,” he said. “I believe it’s important that we base our definitions on the guidance that the state has given us.”

The motion was tabled to allow for comments from other board members on possible edits, sparking an hour-long debate among the trustees. Policy debates have been a rarity at Pelham school board meetings in recent years.

There was some discussion on voting on the original policy as is, or on sending an amended version back to the policy committee

The draft DEI policy was written based on recommendations from the policy committee and a subcommittee of the cultural competence committee. In April, the Board of Regents called on districts to “develop policies that advance diversity, equity and inclusion as a priority in their schools.”

Pelham’s policy can be read here.

The motion to amend was eventually seconded by Ian Rowe, who also joined the board as a new trustee, and defeated 5-2, with Rowe and Owen-Michaane voting yes.

The board then voted 7-0 to approve the policy, while sending the adopted language back to the policy committee for review of the suggested edits from Owen-Michaane and Rowe.

During the debate, Rowe said, “I have never seen such a sweeping policy in my entire time in education.” He described the definitions as helpful to have but that they need to be clearer and more specific.

It is important that “every child feels seen, respected and heard in our community” within the schools and the policy, Rowe said. “We want kids who stand up for what they believe even when it is hard. That they are capable of becoming independent thinkers and do what is right, and they strive for excellence as individuals.”

DeDomenico defended the proposed policy, saying “the policy committee is a crucial committee that we have to rely on,” and adding, “I am not in favor of derailing the work of this policy and abandoning the subcommittee’s rule in this and the policy committee’s deal in this.”

“We have administrators and board members that have put in a lot of time and energy and we have to respect the process as well,” said DeDomenico. “I’m not disagreeing with the things that you’ve said, but there is a process and there’s been a lot of time for this to be out in the community even for you as an individual community member,” suggesting that Owen-Michaane and Rowe should have spoken up during the first two readings of the policy before they joined the board.

Trustee Leah Tahbaz said Pelham’s definitions were made simpler so the policy would be clearer and less complicated, as the Board of Regents’ wording was more complex. She said that the committees had considered all of the language, including that recommended by the Board of Regents, in writing the policy.

Rowe also questioned the use of “data collection” in the policy, as there was no “academic dashboard” mentioned in order to see any disparities across the grade levels.

Childs said the district published data using other methods, not necessarily using a dashboard.

Several community members spoke during the public comment period, including former board members Pete Liaskos and Eileen Miller. Miller and fellow incumbent Jess Young were defeated by Rowe and Owen-Michaane in the school election in May.

Miller said she was “100% confident” that there was no significant difference between the definitions in the Board of Regents recommendation and those in the adopted policy. Others who spoke said they were disappointed with the divide in the board and that finding a solution should not have been so complicated, a sign unanimous agreement has become the standard for the school board.

In other news, the board is considering budgeting to cover the cost of tent rental instead of charging the families of graduates.

Current guidelines allow masks to be optional in administrative offices at the schools if individuals are vaccinated, but Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ said that the summer health guidance is not applicable in the fall return to school.