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Community voices concerns over Latinx representation on CHCCS board, coin-flip method

Carmen Huerta-Bapat, a professor of global studies at UNC-CH, poses for a portrait at The Honeysuckle Cafe on Saturday, Mar. 6, 2021. Huerta-Bapat was one of the final two applicants for the most recent CHCCS Board of Education appointment on Feb. 18, 2021.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education used an unconventional method to appoint its newest member at a Feb. 18 meeting — a coin flip. Some community members have raised concerns over issues of equity this action created. 

Lisa Kaylie, former president of CHCCS’ Special Needs Advisory Council and the CHCCS PTA, won the flip against Carmen Huerta-Bapat, a Latina immigrant and assistant professor with UNC’s global studies program. Kaylie was elected to finish the 10 months left on Amy Fowler's term after she vacated her seat in December to serve on the Orange County Board of Commissioners. 

The coin flip method was approved for use after three consecutive rounds of 3-3 tied votes between board members and is allowed within board rules, said Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for CHCCS. But many community members are frustrated the board did not engage in a discussion about Latinx representation or racial equity before voting. 

During the meeting, board members Ashton Powell and Jillian LaSerna voiced their support for Huerta-Bapat. Powell said he had received more emails from Spanish-speaking families in the days leading up to the meeting than he had gotten in the entirety of the past year, and LaSerna read aloud an email she received from one mother in support of Huerta-Bapat. 

“Many of us are afraid to advocate for our children and their dreams, and we need someone like Carmen who can lift our voices and make our dreams come true,” the email read. 

There is no Latinx representation on the CHCCS board despite the community making up 16 percent of the school population and growing. Huerta-Bapat said Latinx community members often don’t reach out to the board due to fear.

“They feel that if they draw attention to themselves in any way, shape or form, they’re going to be identified and be deported,” she said. “People have dropped off their children at school and not been able to pick them up because they had been deported. I don’t think people understand the fear they live under and the challenges of their daily existence.”

Aside from the brief comments made by Powell and LaSerna, the board did not have a discussion about Latinx representation or racial equity in the meeting before voting. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and the Campaign for Racial Equity In Our Schools sent a joint letter to the board on March 3 detailing their disappointment with how the board handled the vote. The letter noted that board members didn’t use the Racial Equity Impact Assessment tool that they committed to using in 2017 to aid decision-making. 

The letter also included three requests — that the board include equity counsel at meetings, take part in racial equity training and be more transparent with their deliberations. 

“We believe that Lisa Kaylie is a really good, highly qualified candidate, so this is not about criticizing her,” Wanda Hunter, co-founder of the Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools and one of the writers of the letter, said. “We just watched the meeting kind of perplexed that there was so little discussion and that the word 'racial equity' never came up.”

LaSerna, who is the board chairperson, said she thinks the Latinx community is underrepresented in all levels of leadership in the school system, and the board should take assertive action to lift the voices of the community.

Several students in the CHCCS system also reached out to the board through public comment to express their frustrations with the coin flip. Many included the message, “If you won't stand up for our Latinx community, WE will. Si no nos representan, lo haremos nosotros,” after a call to action posted by the Carrboro High School Black and Brown Student Coalition. 

“Equity is not a coin flip,” one student said. “We deserve to have a board that will represent us, the students.”

Many parents were also frustrated by the flip. One parent, an immigrant from Mexico who wished to remain anonymous due to privacy and safety concerns, said they felt like their comments and letters to the board weren’t taken seriously enough. 

“At the end of the day, for this to be decided by the toss of a coin, I don’t think it’s right, it’s like they cast us aside,” they said. “It rubbed me the wrong way. It felt like they didn’t take us seriously.”

They said representation on the school board is important to their community because some Latinx parents are scared and unable to speak up about their experiences and need someone to communicate their needs to the board. They said Huerta-Bapat would have been able to provide that representation as an immigrant, and they were saddened when she wasn’t appointed. 

“There’s always going to be a big difference between the Anglo-Saxons and the Americans and us Latinos,” they said. “... They’re always going to be ahead of us. We want there to be equality, too, for us to have the same rights as they do and to not be cast aside.”

Kaylie said she was happy that so many members of the Latinx community raised their voices during the appointment process and that she’s passionate about doing everything she can to uplift their voices as a new member on the board. 

Huerta-Bapat said she hopes moving forward, a committee or advisory council composed of those working directly with the Latinx community is developed and has access to funding in order to meet the needs of the community. She also hopes more Latinx community members are hired within the school district. 

“My mission is making sure their voices are heard and the needs of this community are met,” she said. “And in the grand scheme of things, that’s all I care about.”

Guillermo Molero contributed reporting and translation to this article. 

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