Dozens of people congregated Tuesday night for the Rochester School Board meeting, raising concerns about critical race theory, "government speech," and the mandatory use of masks throughout the district.
We've answered a few of the questions that arose out of the meeting.
- Crowd protests 'government speech,' critical race theory at Rochester School Board meeting
What is the district's stance on critical race theory?
"Critical race theory" is an academic concept that has been around for decades.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, critical race theory is an "intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color."
The concept of critical race theory has surged to the forefront of the national conversation on race relations in the education system, taking on a new definition in the process. According to Minnesota Public Radio, the concept has been used as a catch-all to "describe the teaching of systemic racism and efforts entailing diversity, equity and inclusion."
After the School Board meeting, RPS Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel clarified that while the district doesn't teach critical race theory, it does care about equity and making sure all students succeed.
Last year, the School Board approved a three-year equity plan that, among other priorities, included the recent hiring of an executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
It seems as though the school district and its critics disagree on the definition of critical race theory. Pekel defined it in its original sense, saying it's a high-level academic concept one might encounter as a doctoral student. Many of the people in the audience defined it differently, interpreting it more as the catch-all for issues related to systemic racism, as MPR described it.
Even though the school district says it doesn't teach critical race theory, it is still focusing on priorities that many people in the audience see as unimportant, or even counterproductive -- issues such as equity.
"Critical race theory is very misleading; it talks about equity instead of equality," said Brenda Hiniker, one of the attendees who spoke at the meeting. "CRT creates reverse discrimination against the white population."
What prompted the large turnout?
The crowd was not objecting to anything listed on the School Board's agenda. Rather, they were protesting larger issues that have been, or were perceived to have been, ongoing in the district.
Much of the turnout for the meeting came together through grassroots efforts.
"We're going to do it every meeting," said Brian Braaten, one of the attendees.
What's the district's policy on masks?
According to the district's summer school policy, students younger than 11 are required to wear masks. Students older than 12 are not required to wear masks if they're vaccinated. However, all students have to wear masks while they are on the bus. No students have to wear masks when they're outside.
The School Board on Tuesday directed the superintendent to provide possible changes to the face-covering policy based on current recommendations from authorities such as Olmsted County Public Health and Mayo Clinic.
What is the district's stance on 'government speech'?
On April 27, the School Board approved a resolution on "government speech." The resolution said the rainbow-colored Pride flag would be considered government speech, as would the following statements:
- Black Lives Matter
- Brown Lives Matter
- Indigenous Lives Matter
- All Are Welcome Here
- Stop Asian Hate
The district's attorney, John Edison, explained how the concept of "government speech" intersects with the First Amendment.
"On this issue, it is the government itself that is speaking," Edison said during the April 27 meeting. "What the courts have to say about that from a First Amendment standpoint is that it is the government's message that it is putting out there when it is speaking, and it can control what that message is. So you don't have the same issue about people coming forward and saying by expressing a certain message that you have to allow others to be expressed, too. That concept does not apply when you're talking about government speech."
The resolution prompted backlash, with critics arguing that the implementation of "government speech" is another form of free-speech infringement. In addition to receiving criticism during Tuesday's meeting, Former Olmsted County Republican Party Chairman Bruce Kaskubar wrote a letter to the editor about the board's decision.
"The fact they were trying to find a way around the First Amendment in order to reserve authority for their own preferred speech is unconstitutional. Literally un-American," Kaskubar wrote.
Why did the live feed quit right after it started?
The School Board doesn't film the public comment section at its meetings. That means the live feed for Tuesday's meeting began just after the public comment section ended and the main meeting was set to begin.
After the live stream started, a section of the crowd spontaneously started reciting the Lord's Prayer as it was leaving. Once the audience began doing so, the live stream cut out. Communications Director Heather Nessler said it was most likely due to confusion about whether the main meeting had actually begun.
"We don't start the feed until the meeting's called to order; my assumption is that they just stopped until we were in a position where we had full order," she said. "I think it was just a matter of not being able to hear and then waiting to make sure we were gaveled in."