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Phoenix-Talent eyes equity panel start by late October

School district would be well ahead of others in Jackson County in meeting new state law
Phoenix-Talent School District

Despite many Jackson County school districts taking ample time to create new educational equity advisory committees required under state law, the Phoenix-Talent School District is forging ahead with recruitment efforts in hopes its panel can convene for the first time in October.

Senate Bill 732, passed during the 2021 legislative session and effective July 1, ordered school districts with more than 10,000 students to convene new educational equity advisory committees no later than Sept. 15, 2022. School districts with smaller enrollments don’t have to do so until that same date in 2025.

Medford is the only local school district with more than 10,000 students, but it received an Oregon Department of Education waiver from the deadline so it could have more time to establish its new committee.

Phoenix-Talent, which isn’t required to field the new committee until 2025, isn’t waiting around. The school district hopes to convene its panel by Oct. 27.

“Having this diverse group of voices and not delaying on that opportunity to hear those voices gives us an opportunity to look at where we’re doing right by our population and where we need to improve,” said Kelly Soter, director of equity and community care for the Phoenix-Talent School District.

Educational equity advisory committees — composed of people ranging from community members to students of color — will advise districts on board policy, as well look at any possibly offensive school incidents through an equity lens. The committee will be responsible for issuing an annual report to the board and superintendent, as well.

Oregon Department of Education has advised school districts to work with their legal counsel to determine whether public meetings laws apply.

District officials have approached recruitment in different ways, from posts on Facebook to a confidential online form.

Patrick Lee, superintendent of Rogue River School District, said its current diversity committee’s work would roll into the new educational equity advisory committee by at least 2025.

And while it is not the district’s nature to wait on compliance items, he believes the extended time frame the law affords to smaller districts could be a blessing.

“We will take some time and see what we can learn from larger districts who are going through the process in the near term,” Lee said.

An online article from Oregon School Boards Association, which helps train school boards, did not shame districts for being unable to meet SB732’s deadlines. In fact, the organization wrote in a recent news release, such requirements “take time.”

Written Sept. 14, on the eve of the law’s deadline, the article noted that none of the state’s 10 largest school districts would have an advisory meeting by then. Salem-Keizer had at least named an advisory committee Sept. 14, while Hillsboro School District planned a committee meeting Sept. 16, according to the article.

Whoever decides to join the new committee, proper representation is important, according to Jackson County school officials. The law says board members and the superintendent cannot serve and the panel should include members of the community as well as “primarily” underserved student groups.

“The real crux of it is to have representation on this advisory committee that mirrors our student population,” Soter said. “It’s a really nice opportunity to reset, refresh and reinvigorate that.”

The first order of business for Phoenix-Talent’s committee could be examining the district’s equity policy, a two-page document that includes five points to “affirm … an inclusive culture where every student, staff member and family feels seen, heard and validated.”

“But it lacks actionable items and steps that (show) we’re doing what’s really in the equity policy,” Soter said, noting the policy has been reviewed by the school board before.

On the law’s notion that the committee address potential situations in schools that may have “negative impacts” on underrepresented groups of students, Soter said it is important to respond to incidents of bias.

“That’s a really critical part … that we follow through after (the incident) is reported,” she said. “It’s really about making our campuses safe for all that step into our spaces.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.