How does a school principal, valued and praised for 18 years, suddenly become seen as immoral and unfit? Two pieces of backstory may help lead to an answer.
Now-former Denfeld High School Principal Tonya Sconiers openly collaborated with the Community-Based School Equity Initiative, often referred to as the Denfeld Equity Group, since its inception in early 2017. She allowed the equity group to meet at Denfeld and provided information we as community members needed to understand and critique district practices. She even allowed the group to hold public forums in the Denfeld High School building.
Though legal, these activities, I suspect, weren’t popular with district administrators or certain School Board members. As the equity group launched its equity audit of the district, board member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp repeatedly expressed being anxious to know what the group would do next. She had good reason to be anxious.
The multiracial grassroots organizing that followed the Denfeld group’s discovery of the diversion of compensatory-education dollars led to the unprecedented compensatory-education realignment resolution. The campaign and resolution represented both a huge embarrassment for the administration and the loss of power and control.
Sconiers’ role went well beyond providing information. She also pushed the equity issue herself. She spoke out in district meetings and openly associated with equity group members. She is highlighted in a nationally televised PBS special on opportunity gaps, criticizing the Duluth school district for perpetuating the disparities it is charged with reducing.
The superintendent and his administration cannot take action against community members. They can, however, go after district staff. And that, I believe, is what happened to Principal Tonya Sconiers.
I feel we have an administration striking back at the only target it can for her outspokenness and perhaps as a way to cut off information to community members who rely on such information regarding policies and practices that are inequitable.
We also have an administration which, in my view, isn’t as successful as it could be in a multicultural environment. Sconiers is a strong black woman. She expresses herself in ways that are fairly common within black culture. Such mannerisms can be off-putting to someone who expects, consciously or unconsciously, others to show deference and communicate the way they do.
It’s interesting that Assistant Superintendent Jeff Horton’s directives to Sconiers were only to her, the district’s lone principal of color. As alleged in Sconiers’ lawsuit against the district, Horton’s directives instructed her to never challenge his authority or criticize district decisions. At the same time, she must “seek to highlight any positive aspects” of her mostly white staff’s ideas when they disagree with her, the document reads.
She also was directed not to raise her voice or engage in overlapping speech, both patterns common in black communities that often are judged as interrupting by whites early in their cultural journeys.
I’m troubled that these directives were actually put in writing — and signed by the assistant superintendent. It indicates what is, perhaps, at the heart of the case against Sconiers.
The administration’s actions against Sconiers disrupted the career of a valued member of our educational system and may have caused some to question how the district treats its staff of color. The actions also exposed the district to legal liability.
I don’t believe that most School Board members would have condoned this termination if they understood the underlying dynamics at play. Perhaps the board should be scrutinizing the administrators orchestrating this injustice rather than its target.
It is the community’s responsibility to hold our elected and appointed leaders accountable when they use their power and position to silence dissent.
In the last election we made some progress in electing School Board members who valued transparency and equity. We have more work to do.
Kevin Skwira-Brown of Duluth is part of the Denfeld family, is an equity and inclusion trainer, and is a member of various equity-related efforts in the community.