Burlington School Board Investigation Finds No Racial Discrimination | Off Message

Burlington School Board Investigation Finds No Racial Discrimination


  • File: Molly Walsh
  • Yaw Obeng
An investigation into alleged racial comments by a Burlington school board member turned up no evidence of discrimination against Superintendent Yaw Obeng, according to documents released by the district Friday.

Private investigator Daniel Troidl found that even if board member Jeff Wick did make racially biased comments, “there is no credible evidence that such bias has manifested itself in the form of illegal employment discrimination.”

The report, which included interviews with administrators and school board members, concluded a controversial multiweek investigation.

As a result of the investigation, the school board passed a resolution on Tuesday that requires its members to receive training on inherent bias and how to avoid employment discrimination. The resolution also created a committee to make sure the salaries of employees that report to the board have been "appropriately established."

The investigation arose after former board chair Mark Porter asserted in January that Wick asked in a private conversation last year whether the board had "gone too far in hiring district leadership of color." Porter, who later stepped down, accused Wick of racial bias.

One of the concerns stemmed from early September, during Obeng's salary negotiation. The board offered the superintendent a three-year contract and a salary of $161,091, up $6,255 from his current pay. Wick was one of three "no" votes on the contract, which was approved and goes into effect on July 1, 2018.

Obeng, who is black, worried that Wick's alleged comment to Porter — and subsequent vote — indicated racial bias and had caused the board to offer him a lower salary than he might have gotten, according to Troidl's report.

Obeng did not file a formal complaint, but the board nonetheless hired Troidl to investigate the concerns. Troidl charged the school district $2,826 for 33.25 hours of investigative work, Seven Days reported last week.

Wick has vehemently denied the assertions and said he voted against the contract because of a lack of public engagement and transparency in the contract negotiation process, concerns about the performance-based bonuses Obeng can receive, and negative comments district employees made about Obeng, according to the investigation.

Whether Wick made the comments could not "be definitively established on the record here because of equally fervent assertions and denials," Troidl wrote in his conclusion.

Wick did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Even if Wick did make the remarks, the report concluded, it didn't change the outcome of Obeng's contract. The board used a salary study and analysis provided by former board chair Stephanie Seguino to determine appropriate pay. "It was clear from Seguino's salary analysis that a significant amount of work went into trying to determine a fair salary increase," Troidl wrote.

Aside from the salary issue, Porter also claimed that Wick called Diversity Now, a parent-community group that advocates for increased diversity and inclusivity, "the worst thing that ever happened to Burlington."

According to the report, another member of the school community has also accused Wick of racist comments. Nikki Fuller, the district's senior director of human resources, said that Wick called her before he was elected to the board in March 2017, worrying that others perceived him to be racist. According to Fuller, Wick expressed that "he was trying to protect kids from a black superintendent" and that Obeng was cutting "white kids stuff," namely Advanced Placement classes. In subsequent interviews with Troidl, Wick denied making such comments.

Following the release of the report, current board chair Clare Wool and Obeng both announced their readiness to move beyond the dispute. In a statement, Obeng thanked community members and staff for "words of encouragement and support" and praised the school board for "taking the issues of employment equity and discrimination seriously."

Wool noted that she was happy with the results. “The newly elected School Board and Superintendent are eager to move forward committed to the unified goals of the district,” she said.

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