East Lyme capital spending talk turns into argument against critical race theory
East Lyme — A local man called on taxpayers Wednesday to reject a $1 million capital request for education to send "a clear message" after a comment made by his wife was labeled antisemitic and racist by a member of the school board.
Mike Mondello spoke at the special town meeting on the authorization of $2.55 million in bonding projects for education, public works and the fire department. The items are part of the town's 10-year capital improvement plan.
"Money is the only speech we have," Mondello said. "It is the only control we have. The board needs to understand they work at the taxpayers' behest, not the other way around."
Roughly two dozen voters at the town meeting approved all appropriations on the agenda. While the rest of the items passed unanimously, there were two nay votes on the education request based on concerns raised by Mondello.
Mondello said he was prompted to make his plea after his wife, Elizabeth Mondello, got no response at Monday's Board of Education meeting when she asked for the immediate retraction of the comments about her.
Elizabeth Mondello spoke to the school board via Zoom, calling the comments "unfounded, deeply hurtful and defamatory."
The controversy arose on May 24, when Mondello submitted a letter critical of the diversity consulting firm hired by the school board to conduct an audit of the school community's overall mindset on issues of diversity.
The Providence R.I.-based Equity Institute this spring collected surveys, held focus groups and conducted one-on-one interviews for a report expected later in the summer. The school board authorized $15,000 for the audit back in February.
"I strongly object to the presence of these commercial groups in our schools, in my opinion they are just professional parasites," Elizabeth Mondello wrote.
Her letter was read into the public record by a school board member because the public at the time was not allowed to attend the meetings in person due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
At the same May meeting, Republican school board member John Kleinhans said during a discussion on the diversity audit that he was "deeply offended" by what he called the "very antisemitic and racist" implications of the term parasite. "If somebody's saying that in public comment, I don't even know what people are saying behind the scenes," he said.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "parasite" was a common term in German government-sponsored propaganda used to denounce Jewish people.
Kleinhans did not return a call for comment. Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton said in a Thursday email that he had no comment on Elizabeth Mondello's request for a retraction because he'd "have to go back and see what is written in the BOE meeting minutes specific to what was said about Mrs. Mondello's letter."
Mike Mondello and resident Fredricka Gunther said during the town meeting that it has been difficult to attend school board meetings and to submit public comment, even now that many pandemic restrictions on in-person gatherings have been lifted.
The June 21 agenda still cited COVID-19 restrictions as the reason for holding the meeting in-person for school board members while asking the public to attend via Zoom.
A disclaimer on the agenda said "all public attendees who would like to submit a public comment must register by email" with Newton's administrative assistant "to ensure social distancing guidelines are maintained."
Newton after the town meeting said people can now attend meetings in person and they are not required to register in order to speak.
Critical race theory
Mike Mondello at Wednesday's special town meeting referenced the school board's recently approved strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion as another example of the district's approach on issues of race.
He read aloud from the strategic plan's glossary, which defined the term racism as "a complex system of beliefs and behaviors, grounded in a presumed superiority of the white race." The document also provided a "simpler definition" using the equation "racial prejudice + power = racism."
Mondello said it's fine if adults want to "use this kind of theory" among themselves, "But children should not be seeing in first, second, third, fourth, fifth grade that some children because of their skin color are oppressors and other children are victims."
Gunther invoked the term "critical race theory" when she spoke in support of Mondello at the meeting.
The Associated Press describes critical race theory as a way of thinking about America's history through the lens of racism. Scholars developed it during the 1970s and 1980s in response to what they viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation's institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society, according to the news outlet.
"They're totally supporting this critical race theory," Gunther said of the school board, citing the involvement of the Equity Institute and the Southeastern Connecticut Organization for Racial Equity, or SCORE, in the schools and at Board of Education meetings.
Newton has said the Board of Education's focus on diversity, equity and inclusion came about at the urging of the grassroots group SCORE, which was known at the time as East Lyme for Black Lives Matter. The group emerged following the death of George Floyd, who was pinned by the neck under the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Gunther described SCORE as "a very radical group" involved with the school system. She said the schools should be teaching history — including topics like enslavement and the treatment of Native Americans — instead of politics.
"It shouldn't be a political thing. It's about our children, it's about our grandchildren. It's about them not being told that you're white and you're racist. And that's what it is. That's what the program is," she said.
SCORE director of programming Nickie Padilla said over the phone Thursday that the term critical race theory has been "weaponized by the right." The aim is to teach all students to recognize the systems of inequity that have been embedded in all aspects of society, she said — from health care to education, to buying a house.
"Inclusion is about including everyone, not excluding any one particular race of students. We want all children to learn the contributions of people from all racial backgrounds, to be able to recognize where there are systems of inequity both historically and today, and to value diverse voices in the conversation," she said.
SCORE's role has been to "encourage the dialogue" around diversity, equity and inclusion by suggesting that the school board form a committee on the topic — "which they have done," Padilla said. The group also suggested the district provide professional development opportunities, which the district also has done.
"We are not directly educating anyone. We are liaisons between the school system and whatever resources they are seeking to find," she said.
SCORE director of finance Esteban Garcia is a member of the districtwide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee consisting of administrators, teachers and parents, according to Padilla. She said he is not necessarily there as a member of SCORE, but as a "concerned parent."
Garcia in an email said the nonprofit group rejects the idea that issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are a "political thing."
"We are a nonpartisan organization committed to anti-racist action with the ultimate goal of making people of color feel heard, safe, and welcome in southeastern Connecticut," he said.