Spoiler Alert: He doesn’t see it.

School committee member talks with Hank Stolz about racism in the Worcester Public Schools.

On Tuesday, April 1, Worcester School Committee member John Monfredo called in to the Hank Stolz radio program to discuss what he — and a few others — have characterized as “accusations of racism” by fellow school committee member Dante Comparetto. If you want to get up to speed on the backstory behind this, Tracy O’Connell Novick does a pretty good job of covering it at her Who’s of Whocester blog and Bill Shaner highlights some more of it at WoMag. The column that Stolz refers to in this interview is this one, published Monday, April 1. The rest of this post is a transcription of the interview embedded above.

Transcription of Hank Stolz Interview with John Monfredo

Stolz: Let’s go to school committee John Monfredo, who has certainly been put into this and pulled into this as well, and certainly has always had strong opinions. Good morning, John.

Monfredo: Good morning, Hank, and, also, 20 years as principal of Belmont Community School. Incidentally that would be

We do a disservice to the city of Worcester and to the dedicated teachers and administrators when we start talking about there’s racists in the district. How you slice it, you know, they’re talking about racists. There are rules, and we’re talking about suspensions, there are rules to follow for everyone. One doesn’t consider the race of the student when one breaks the rules. Now, Hank, I’ve been in education for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen racism as an issue in the Worcester Public Schools. Poverty. I’ve seen students in need, and we start talking about our superintendent Binienda, who was a principal at South High School, and like me, started so many programs to assist the needy and in that group there were many minorities. Programs such as clothing stores, food pantries, extra tutoring for students, going to homes of parents in need of support, reaching out just to make a difference in the lives of others. This is what it’s all about.

Now can improvements be made iby addressing when we’re talking about suspension? Absolutely. Of course we can do more, as we’re trying to do. But let’s not create a problem that doesn’t exist. Let’s work in partnership. As we all know — alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much. School should be a place of learning and growth. This cannot affect — cannot occur effectively if we’re not clear about equitable guidelines for everyone to follow. We need to examine the data on school suspensions in greater detail rather than make superficial passes, draw conclusions that may not be very accurate. We have so many outstanding mimority graduates that go on to higher education from the Worcester Public Schools. They do make a difference in this community. Let’s continue to honor the great diversity of the Worcester Public Schools and embrace our common values of respect and the importance of education.

Now this issue has been blown up and it makes the district look irresponsible. We should be working to improving our district with more educational opportunities for our students, and which we are doing each and every day. We should not be playing politics with the lives of our students. Let’s stop playing the blame game. But to get for the benefit of our students.

Stolz: So do you believe from the comments that fellow school committee member Dante Comparetto made that he’s not talking about structural racism, or that he doesn’t want to have an honest conversation about structural racism, but that he really is calling certain Worcester teachers racist and that he is doing it for political advantage?

Monfredo: I don’t know what his motive is, but you have to be very careful what you’re saying because it’s offensive to talk about racism. It’s a word that people don’t want to hear. It taking place in our schools – absolutely not. I don’t know how you slice structural racism or not, but when you’re talking about suspensions, you’re talking the teachers who bring the kids to the office and the principals who divvies out the suspension, who else can you be talking about? We have a school system with 70% of the kids are in poverty. We’re doing everything possible to meet the needs of our kids. We need to do it in a collaborative way. We can’t just go out there and throw words out. We need to work as a team and make it happen.

Stolz: John do you know — I don’t expect you to have the percentages or the numbers in front of you, but I know you have a pretty good idea of them: is there a problem in the Worcester Public Schools with this racial disparity in suspensions? I mean, is it a number that is troubling and we should be looking at it, the school committee should be talking about?

Monfredo: I can say that across the state, in Gateway Cities, it certainly is a problem with suspensions, but is it because a child happens to be of a certain race? If you want to look at some statistics, let’s look at chronic absenteeism. That is an area I have been fighting for for five years and trying to get people to make sure they understand that chronic absenteeism is a problem.

Stolz: Absolutely. You’ve gotta have the kids in there. John, I think you touched on this, so I think you’ve obviously read Clive McFarlane’s speech (sic) today? Because I think that some of the things you were saying earlier were…

Monfredo: I haven’t.

Stolz: Oh, you haven’t? All right, so Clive writes today that there is a group, the Worcester Coalition for Economic Equity, Isabel Gozalez-Webster, and they are calling for the superintendent to step down and also — actually, I take that back, what they’re saying is that the school committee should fire the superintendent of schools, and also fire fire Rob Pezella, the safety officer, and I’ll just give you their quick statement here: “If this school committee truly cares for its students of color, particularly Latino students and other EL students, it can not, must not and will not renew the superintendents contract and must remove the school safety liaison from his post.” EL students, those are English as a second language, is that right?

Monfredo: Yes.

Stolz: Okay. I know that this is the first that you are hearing of this. What do you make of that?

Monfredo: It’s utterly ridiculous. I have never met a superintendent that works as tirelessly as Maureen Binienda. This woman is in the community constantly, all the time. She cares about students. Look at her track record. She was at South High School and the number of students that she’s assisted and helped move forward. She’s gone even to colleges to support students when they had difficulty getting enough aid. This woman is a champoion of all the students. To say a statement like that is very irresponsible.

Stolz: Worcester School Committee member John Monfredo calling in to the show this morning. We really do appreciate it. John from your perspective sitting there, what ah… I don’t know, especially Brian O’Connell reported getting upset at this last school committee meeting. We played the sound earlier of the mayor gaveling school committee member Dante Comparetto out of order. You were there. What the.. what went on? What’s the context there that we may not be getting?

Monfredo: Well, first of all, Comparetto was obviously out of order. He was incorrect. He was referring to a statement that was probably in Worcester Magazine when they said that the teaching. learning and student support committee did not bring forward a sex education plan. Making Proud Choices was what we were going to discuss and that was pulled off the table before Brian and I even had an opportunity to discuss it at the table. The mayor at the time said that he felt there was too much controversy over it, and he and the superintendent decided to pull off that particular item. We were ready to talk about it. There wasn’t any question in my mind that it was not developmentally appropriate for our students. But to blame Brian because he was the head of that committee that was uh (unintelligible)

Stolz: I know that — and I know, I appreciate — it sounds like there’s a little bit of feedback going on there, so I appreciate your being with us here this morning. What’s happening at this next school committee meeting? What should we be looking for?

Monfredo: I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. Each week, each time we’re meeting, things come up. It’s unfortunate. We’ve got to work together. That’s the bottom line. We may have differences of opinion, but let’s face it. The bottom line as a school committee person is not to be out there pontificating what’s happening in society. We need to look at problems that are existing and what can we do to resolve those problems. Now, I started to talk to you about chronic absenteeism. That’s an issue that obviously that the superintendent has taken on. I had mentioend when she first came on that we needed to take a look at it. We have a many involved that meet almost every other month to look at what we can do, and we have continued to cut back on chronic absenteeism. Mind you we probably have a best absentee rate of any gateway city, but there’s still room for improvement. However, when we look at the Latino population, talking about 19.3% of the students that are absent. That concerns me. We’re talking about a group that right now is calling for the resignation of the superintendent, they need to look at within, how can they work with us to improve the fact that we need to get Latino parents to get their children to school. It’s not a simple task. It’s something that we need to do cooperatively.

Stolz: Yeah. John, thank you. We’ll talk more about this issue. We’ll certainly be talking more with you as what is going to be a heated race. We’ll let you go, but any thoughts on that? Thirteen folks (running for school committee). What’s going on?

Monfredo: Yeah, I know. I hope that we can discuss issues, but let’s not play the blame game and bring our kids into the fray. We need to look at what we’re doing right and what we can do to improve.