A resolution reaffirming the Rome school district’s commitment to inclusivity and equality, plus the prohibiting of discriminatory behaviors, has been approved by the Board of Education.
But the board’s action Thursday night, similar to resolutions by other local government boards following racist hate group materials being seen locally, was preceded by concerns expressed at the meeting by Rome NAACP officials regarding board practices.
Jacqueline Nelson, president of the Rome branch of the NAACP, referred to a social media posting a few months ago by a Rome school board member that she said was “offensive and racially motivated.” She also questioned the school district’s overall handling of concerns brought by the Rome NAACP branch over the years, and said “we no longer trust that those elected to this board take seriously their representation of children of color.”
Nelson said the NAACP is requesting “a serious conversation and plans for making all children of color feel accepted, safe and welcomed in their schools.”
It also is requesting “a commitment to address racial bias within the board” and “a plan to hire minority teachers.”
Board President Paul Fitzpatrick said he would “be happy to sit down....discuss some of the issues you brought up.” He also said he has discussed the social media posting with the board member involved, adding that it has been resolved. He added
“in my mind it was blown way out of proportion....Hopefully, it’s resolved....Hopefully it won’t happen again.”
Neither Fitzpatrick nor Nelson would identify the board member; the board has nine members overall. School district Superintendent Peter C. Blake said after the meeting that NAACP officials told him the social media posting had occurred in March. That was before the local incidents in which purported flyers for the Klu Klux Klan were left at homes at Camelot Village in Westmoreland on May 10; on Hilson Drive in the Town of Lee on June 13; and on Glen Road South in Rome’s outer district on Aug. 2.
The discussion Thursday night, which additionally included comments of concern from some other board members as well as Rome NAACP vice president Leonard Martin, followed an Aug. 23 board meeting at which Martin also addressed the board. Martin at that meeting had urged the board to adopt a resolution or statement in support of a tolerant and welcoming community. Fitzpatrick said then that the matter needed to be addressed by the full board.
Fitzpatick remarked after Thursday’s meeting that the resolution approved by the board was modified from a resolution composed by board Vice President Stephen Hampe, who had referred to it during the Aug. 23 meeting. The approved resolution said the board, “consistent with the district’s mission statement, continues to recognize the great value that a diverse population brings to this community.” It also said the board “reaffirms the district’s long-established and enduring commitment to inclusivity, equality, dignity and respect for all.”
Among comments during the discussion prior to the resolution approval:
• “The NAACP is here tonight to put this school board on notice. We plan to question, investigate and address our concerns....” Nelson told the board.
Regarding the board member’s posting that she said was on “Facebook...social media,” Nelson said “it referred to people on public assistance looking up the balance on their food stamp accounts with $800 phones, and having a national day for whites.” She asked how the school board “can allow one of your members to have this bias?”
• Martin cited the lack of “people of color” on the board, adding he believes that board discussions would have a “different perspective” otherwise. He also said “maybe it’s something we have to work on” too.
• Fitzpatrick said “I do feel a little resentful....I’m being put on notice....”I’ll leave it at that.”
• Board members Joseph Mellace and Lawrence Posselt both asked who was the board member who made the offensive social media posting.
Posselt said “if somebody here was doing that...we’d like to know.” But Fitzpatick said “no we wouldn’t,” referring to the need for private discussion. The board had scheduled a closed executive session Thursday after the end of the open portion of the meeting, and Posselt said the matter could be addressed “in executive session.”
• Mellace and board member John Leonard objected to the references being made by Nelson and Martin to the board as a whole.
Leonard also noted the limited number of candidates in recent board elections, telling the NAACP officials that he could help collect candidate petition signatures. The board would “welcome whoever wants to help out,” he added.
Mellace said he did not appreciate “the broad brush we’re being painted with.” He said he grew up in a diverse community, and would “never think of posting something” such as the posting being referred to. Any claim that the entire board endorses such postings is “the wrong position to take,” he added.
Nelson observed “we were under the impression” that the board overall had been aware of the social media postings. Mellace urged not to “come here and assume” that the board is all “doing these bad things....” Nelson replied, “point taken.”
Some board members suggested the matter could be discussed further at a special meeting such as perhaps next week.
Among other government boards, the Rome Common Council on July 25 voted for a resolution reiterating the city’s “commitment to be welcoming of all people,” plus a commitment to be inclusive. The county Board of Legislators on Aug. 8 signed a petition “resolving to build an inclusive county” and condemning all bigotry.