The Christina School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to censure one of its own members over comments he made regarding impoverished students in Wilmington, including the suggestion that kids would be better off if they were taken away from their mothers.
Fred Polaski’s comments created a “furor” in the community, said Board President Meredith Griffin, who added the emergency censure motion to the school board meeting agenda.
“We need to take a very firm stand that we as a body stand apart from the statements that were made by one of our members,” Griffin said.
Polaski’s controversial comments came during the Feb. 4 “study session” meeting at Stubbs Early Education Center in Wilmington. Study sessions are workshop-style meetings at which the board discusses issues but cannot take votes. The meetings are typically sparsely attended.
The board was finishing a lengthy discussion about the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity, which is studying ways to improve education in Wilmington and northern New Castle County. Among the ideas being considered is redistricting, which could result in Wilmington being removed from Christina for the first time since court-mandated desegregation.
Polaski, who has served on the school board since 2011, said there are bigger issues to consider than district boundaries when discussing schools in high-poverty areas. He mentioned some of the challenges he’s heard teachers and parents discuss, such as students who come to kindergarten not knowing their shapes, colors or even their names, students who have no books at home and single mothers who “list her job as ‘prostitute’” on applications.
“I’ve jokingly said this to some people, but I’m half-serious about it, too. I think there are children growing up in high-poverty areas – not just the city, but elsewhere – the best thing we can do for them, and I know this is not acceptable today, when they’re about 12 weeks old, take them away from mom and hand them back when they’re 18 years old and graduated from high school. But provide that home environment somehow, because they’re not getting it where they live,” Polaski said. “I think that really needs to be considered in the whole picture of what are you going to do to help these children. It’s more than what goes on in the classroom and where the boundaries are set up.”
None of the other board members addressed Polaski’s comments at the time.
Griffin explained Tuesday that Polaski had arrived late to the Feb. 4 meeting and made his remarks after the rest of the board concluded its discussion. Several members were in the restroom or preparing for the next agenda item while Polaski was talking, he said.
“I was looking at what we had coming next and not really paying attention to the comments that Mr. Polaski was making. For that I apologize. It is my role as a board member to be attentive to what’s happening in the moment in a meeting, and I did not do that then,” Griffin said.
He became aware of the comments after someone else alerted him.
“After listening to the audio, I personally was offended by the comments,” he said. “I was offended as someone who grew up in the city.”
Board member Elizabeth Paige noted that she’s never heard Polaski talk about Christina’s Newark schools the way he talked about the ones in Wilmington.
“I didn’t say Mr. Polaski was racist, but the comments to me absolutely were, and hurtful and offensive,” Paige said.
George Evans, the only board member who lives in Wilmington, stopped short of calling the comments racist.
“I’d agree those comments were clearly insensitive and they did not represent Wilmington at all,” Evans said. “Surely, those comments were stereotyping, but knowing Mr. Polaski, I don’t consider this along the lines of racism, but not appropriate, very insensitive and does not represent the line of thinking of this board.”
On Tuesday, Polaski apologized for the way the comments were received.
“If my comments at last week’s board meeting on Feb. 4 about the factors that interfere with the education of children were taken as racist, I apologize for not making myself clear,” he said. “They were not about race.”
Still, he stood by the gist of his remarks.
“I mentioned a possible intervention for children who have no home would be group homes or some type of institutional setting that would provide the support those children need,” he said. “That may be drastic, but for some children, drastic actions may be the only actions that work.”
The controversy comes at a precarious time for Christina, which desperately needs voters to approve a June 9 referendum to avoid having to make more staff reductions. Board members, administrators and parent advocates have all talked repeatedly about needing a communications strategy to share positive stories about the district to counter negative perceptions in the community.
Polaski’s comments make that job even harder, said Mary Schorse, a parent and leader of Friends of Christina School District.
“Our students and our teachers are counting on you to do everything you can,” Schorse told the board.