A plan by Anne Arundel County school officials to realign an office that monitors minority achievement prompted tense moments during Wednesday's school board meeting, heightened by a former school board member referring to interim Superintendent Mamie Perkins as "Aunt Jemima."
Last week, Perkins announced plans to reorganize the system's Office of Equity and Human Relations, an office that has been a liaison between the school system and the community on issues related to achievement and discipline gaps for minority students.
Perkins created a new Office of Equity and Accelerated Student Achievement that will monitor minority achievement among other duties, and report to deputy superintendent Arlen Liverman rather than the superintendent.
The school board also approved the appointment of Anthony Alston as new executive director of the new office. Alston, currently senior manager of research in the school system's Instructional Data Division, has worked for Anne Arundel County Public Schools since 1996. His tenure has included duties as a special education teacher at Van Bokkelen and Quarterfield elementary schools and principal at Woodside Elementary School.
Alston will also co-chair a Blue Ribbon Commission on Equity and Achievement being created by Perkins to examine issues related to achievement and discipline gaps, school officials said. The realignment is part of a system-wide reorganization Perkins will present to the board on June 18.
School spokesman Bob Mosier said that in addition to the Office of Equity and Student Achievement, the Office of School Performance also reports to the deputy superintendent and works with Student Support Services and Professional Development.
The realignment, Mosier said, makes the Equity and Student Achievement office "more integrally involved in the key conversations" among the other offices at earlier stages.
"Mrs. Perkins felt that as she's looked over the situation over the last 10 months she's been here that there was too much of a silo effect," Mosier said. "Equity and human relations was in one part and school performance was in a different part. Her intention is to integrate those more closely than ever before, allow those conversations to begin earlier and allow every office to have more input into those conversations."
Opponents say the change, and the new office's lack of direct access to the superintendent, will undermine transparency in enforcement of a 2005 agreement between the school system and the U.S. Justice Department regarding efforts to address minority achievement. That agreement was struck after civil rights groups and parents filed complaints about the achievement gap, and the board vowed to close the gap by 2012.
School officials acknowledge they've fallen short of that goal, and Perkins said the moves will aid that effort.
But dozens of residents spoke Wednesday against the reorganization, some saying the matter should have been left to incoming Superintendent George Arlotto, who on Wednesday signed a four-year contract and will begin his tenure next month.
Among opponents was former board member Eugene Peterson, who accused the board of "hiding behind Stepin Fetchit and Aunt Jemima" in allowing the change — references widely considered as disparaging caricatures for African-Americans. Peterson is African-American.
Perkins left the board room after Peterson's comment, and board President Teresa Milio Birge said, "Mr. Peterson, if you're going to be offensive, please sit down."
The exchange became more tense when board member Solon Webb, who is also African-American, approached Peterson and said, "You're an ignorant man."
After the meeting, Peterson said his comments referred to Perkins, who is African-American, as well as Webb, board member Kevin Jackson and other African Americans in the school system that played a role in the plan.
"We have two [African American men] on that board who sat around and let this happen," said Peterson. "We have a deputy superintendent who collaborated with this and allowed Mr. Arlotto to hide behind them. That's the image to the public, and I had to make it as stark as I could."
Jackson declined comment and Liverman could not be reached for comment, but after the meeting Webb said Peterson's remarks were "uncalled for," and Perkins described them as "uncivil."
"I met with Mr. Peterson several times this year, and each time I treated him with respect," she said, "and I expected respect when he would come to the microphone."
Perkins and other school officials are slated to meet with members of the NAACP on June 18 when the interim superintendent rolls out the overall restructuring plan.
"It will be at that meeting that we will have further discussions" said Jacqueline Alsop, chair of the Anne Arundel NAACP. "The community have expressed major concerns about changes that are occurring within the school system."