Backlash stalled Douglas County School District equity plans

Contract with consultants came to abrupt end

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Plans between Douglas County Schools and a consulting firm hired to conduct diversity and equity training crumbled last school year after backlash toward the group’s work mounted, records show.

Now the district is preparing to continue equity work in 2021-22, but leadership said the district is not ready to release details.

“We heard and reflected on the concerns raised and have decided to slow down and regroup on Educational Equity and Inclusive Excellence in DCSD,” district spokeswoman Paula Hans said in an emailed statement.

The Gemini Group, a consulting firm based in Denver, became a lightning rod in April and May as some community members argued their trainings were evidence the district was teaching the much-discussed academic concept of critical race theory after adopting an equity policy.

The district has repeatedy denied that it teaches critical race theory to its students.

Nevertheless, the controversy culminated when Superintendent Corey Wise abruptly canceled a staff summit scheduled with The Gemini Group for May 26 and May 27.

In a letter rebuking the move, Gemini Group founders Dante and Christina James said Wise notified them in an email sent at 12:37 a.m. on May 26. A fraught school board meeting where critical race theory debates had reached a boiling point ended late in the night of May 25.

The consultants’ letter, dated May 26 and addressed to Wise, expressed concern about what message the cancellation would send and fired back at accusations made during school board public comment, in which critics called their trainings anti-white and harmful for white students and students of color alike.

The firm had conducted workshops for roughly 900 district staff in April, which they said were overwhelmingly well-received.

“Finally, allowing a handful of vocal White parents out of the thousands of parents in your district to dictate how to help educators become aware of, and address, detrimental impacts on children of color in this country and in DCSD, by demanding we not talk about race, is naïve at best, or a conscious, willful attempt to maintain the status quo of ignorance, bias, and inequitable outcomes at worst,” Dante and Christina James wrote.

The pair said they were “disgusted and appalled at the level of misinformation and conscious misunderstanding” in comments made at a school board meeting they watched.

“At no point in anything we say do we suggest that White children are racist, or the ‘oppressor’ as was so often suggested,” they wrote. “By example, ensuring that educators choose books that include children of color takes nothing away from White children. We do not state nor imply that all children of color are victims and therefore cannot achieve.”

Highlands Ranch resident and district parent Will Johnson said The Gemini Group made statements during their April workshops about dismantling systems that lead to a dominant culture of white, straight, Christian men, and in turn stoked concern among members of his organization and county residents from a variety of backgrounds.

Johnson co-leads the local chapter of Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, or F.A.I.R., and has occasionally spoken at school board meetings calling the board’s equity policy misguided.

“Parents feel like the district is invading the family sphere,” he said.

The district had entered an agreement with The Gemini Group on Feb. 17, arranging for a professional development day about racial equity and a parent workshop in April — the events that initially sparked brushback — and the two-day equity summit on May 26 and May 27.

The agreement also provided for consultations and coaching for specific schools’ equity work and would have expired on June 30.

The total cost for services in the original agreement was $36,900, according to a copy of the contract obtained by Colorado Community Media through a public records request.

The district had agreed to pay for $13,750 worth of consulting hours, $4,500 for the April workshops and presentations, and $20,000 for the May 26 and 27 summit.

The cancellation policy required a $1,000 fee if the district canceled a workshop within 72 hours. The summit comprised four workshops. Invoices show the district paid a $4,000 fee to cancel the events.

Hans said by email that all activities held with The Gemini Group were funded through an EARSS (Expelled and At-Risk Student Services) grant, a state program aimed at helping districts identify at-risk students.

“Due to the pausing of the work with the Gemini Group for the May 26-27th Foundations in Equity workshop, the contract with the Gemini Group was also paused,” Hans said.

The district held a meeting with the Gemini Group in June and has not interacted with the firm since, Hans said. Invoices provided to Colorado Community Media through a public records request show the district paid $1,125 for the June consultation hours. Those included a 30-minute meeting with Wise and his cabinet members, a 15-minute phone conversation with Wise, an hour to prepare a presentation for the district’s cabinet and a 45-minute conversation with Janet Laning, a member of the district’s equity team.

Superintendent Wise declined to speak about any issues concerning The Gemini Group, critical race theory, the district’s Equity Advisory Committee, or related topics.

School Board President David Ray declined to comment.

At the May 25 meeting, Ray responded to public comment about The Gemini Group and DCSD’s equity policy by saying “we hold our superintendent accountable, that practices match what the policies stated.”

Although Ray defended the equity policy, he also understood The Gemini Group’s presentations and the district’s use of the No Place For Hate program were creating “a great deal of consternation,” he said.

Reached by email, Dante and Christina James deferred to the letter they sent to Wise and said additional comments about equity work in DCSD should come from district leadership.

The district is still forming plans for future equity work under its education equity policy, according to its website, including bylaws for its Equity Advisory Committee created by the district’s equity policy. The group will advise the district about equity work.

Reporter Liam Adams contributed to this report. This story was updated on Aug. 5 to include additional comments from Will Johnson.

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