The South Portland Human Rights Commission is asking for a meeting with the city’s school board to discuss how to work together, making the invitation after the school board rejected allegations of racism leveled by commission members at a meeting last week.

Margaret Brownlee, the commission’s vice chair, said that while she doesn’t remember exactly what she said at the meeting, she made a comment along the lines of “the school board is (expletive) racist” as the commission was discussing a complaint made last year about a teacher’s use of a racial slur in a classroom.

“I know I was very upset and I turned my camera off for a period because I was so upset,” said Brownlee, who said her comment was the culmination of her reaction to the complaint about the teacher, similar concerns she has heard from other families and personal interactions with some school board members.

Other commission members also made comments about members of the school board being racist, said Pedro Vazquez, chair of the commission. “We were having an open, truthful conversation and some members spoke their truth very openly and vulnerably,” Vazquez said. “And they said some members of the school board were racist but did not elaborate further.”

Richard Matthews, chair of the board of education, was at the meeting and said he was horrified but did not speak up at the time because “I felt my emotions weren’t in the right place.”

Instead, Matthews wrote a letter to the human rights commission Monday in which he said the board was shocked and saddened. “The allegation that the school board is racist is categorically false,” the letter states. “The South Portland School Board, and each of the members on the board, are fully committed to the school department’s mission of maintaining a workplace and learning environment that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment.”

The commission meeting was held on Zoom but not recorded. Stephanie Weaver, director of human resources for South Portland, said in an email Friday that she was transcribing the minutes and was unsure whether she could provide them before they are approved by the commission, which is scheduled to meet Thursday.

The commission responded to the board with a letter of its own on Thursday, asking for a public meeting for the two bodies to exchange ideas about how to work together.

“It is true that members of our Human Rights Commission and community members shared their truths about their experiences at school board meetings, within our public school system and in our community,” the letter says. “These truths about personal experiences with racism can be difficult to hear and accept, regardless of how they are delivered.

“Despite our best intentions as public servants and elected officials, sometimes our impact can still be harmful. We know that both members of our Human Rights Commission and members of our South Portland School Board have experienced this impact. It is our hope we can work together to find a resolution.”

Rani McLeod, whose daughter Traci Francis filed the complaint about a teacher’s use of a racial slur in a classroom last year, was not present at the meeting but said she had previously talked to the commission about the complaint. She was disappointed in the response from the school board when they heard it this month.

“We really felt disrespected and just not heard or listened to at all,” she said. McLeod is white and her daughter is biracial.

Matthews said this week that he could not discuss personnel issues or the board discussion of the complaint, which took place in an executive session. He said he wasn’t sure whether the school board will take the commission up on its invitation to a joint meeting as the district is busy trying to set a budget, hire a new superintendent and figure out how to bring students back into classrooms. “Let’s just say it’s a possibility in the future but not right off the bat,” he said.

In an email Friday, Superintendent Ken Kunin said he is proud of the work the district has done in the six years he has been superintendent to increase equity of access to opportunity for students. “I have benefited from and am grateful for the strong support of the board of education in this work throughout my tenure,” Kunin said. “As the chair said, we support the mission of the South Portland Human Rights Commission and look forward to working with them to address our shared goals around equity and inclusion.”

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