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Minority voices feel left out in superintendent search

A community leader told the Rochester School Board Tuesday that the district's minority community is being disregarded and marginalized in the process of selecting the district's next superintendent.

"The oversight, or perhaps blatant disregard, (by) this board to make a sincere effort to get input from all community groups is telling. Whether intentional or not, the effect is the same: Marginalization of 30 percent of families," said Estelle Souchet, a past president of the NAACP, in reference to the percentage of families in the district who are minority.

Souchet said she became aware of the problem when she realized that the survey being used to create a superintendent's profile had still not been translated into either Somali or Spanish, two of the district's biggest minority groups.

That was on March 1, nearly two weeks after some board members had requested translated versions of the survey to assure participation by minority groups.

The school has a survey on its website that community members and parents can fill out, but it is an English-only version.

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Souchet said that when she approached a board member about the lack of follow-through, she was told the problem would be taken care of. Yet by March 4, translated versions of the survey were still unavailable.

Souchet said that when she asked why, she was told by a staff member that Board Chairman Dan O'Neil had ordered staff not to create the translated versions because there was not enough time.

"They told me that Dan O'Neil specifically told them not to do it," Souchet said.

Souchet made the comments prior to Tuesday's board meeting when community members are invited to address the board.

After the meeting, O'Neil said efforts are being made to guarantee that minority voices within the district are being heard. He said the timeline has been extended twice to assure that participation. That will mean that a final report on the criteria the public wants to use in choosing the next leader won't be presented to the board until April 5 instead of March 25, as was originally planned.

O'Neil said putting the survey online in five different languages, translating those comments back into English and adding them to the report would have been costly and time-consuming. The plan instead is to use paper versions of the translated surveys whose results will be typed by hand into the online survey.

"We're going to do it the old-school way," O'Neil said. "There was a miscommunication as to what we intended to do. We intended to invite people to the focus groups who were deeply representative of the community. Now certainly we missed some."

Souchet said that some translated versions of the survey were still not done by March 11, although the Spanish version was done. By that time, the district had enlisted the help of ESOL coordinator Sam Ouk and his staff in translating the surveys into four main languages.

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But the task proved overwhelming to Ouk's staff within the allotted time, until the deadline was eventually extended and it was agreed to pay Ouk's staff overtime. But even then, "we had to push very hard to get the input survey period extended," she said.

Souchet said a forum to solicit input from the Hispanic community was held March 10, and "I'm happy to say" that 39 families participated. A similar meeting was held Tuesday to hear from Somali leaders in the community.

Souchet said getting that input has been possible, but only because she has been willing to push as hard as she has.

"The point is, we were not asked to help. We were excluded from the development of that process," Souchet said.

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