RACINE — Racine Unified has scaled back support for an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in part because of the organizing student group’s political activism, district Superintendent Ann Laing said.
Youth Empowered in the Struggle organizes the event, which includes community service, a rally at King’s Racine statue, social justice workshops and an evening community program/dinner. YES is the student arm of Voces de la Frontera, a nonprofit that supports Democratic causes like immigrant rights and collective bargaining and has taken heat for what Republicans see as Democratic-leaning get out the vote events.
For the groups’ MLK Day events, Unified has previously provided student breakfast, lunch and transportation to community service sites and the rally. But for the coming 2013 event, the district has eliminated such support, citing bus driver concerns about student safety and the alleged political leanings of Voces, Unified spokeswoman Stacy Tapp said.
While Unified works with many community groups, Laing said Voces is the only group that “has come in and expected us to support a political agenda.”
Voces officials have said the group — and the MLK Day event — is nonpartisan. But Voces, through YES, this spring introduced a yet-to-be-approved Unified student bill of rights that includes items about collective bargaining and in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. Voces has also hosted controversial get out the vote efforts where Unified students go door-to-door on election days encouraging voting. Republicans cried foul after the June recall election, saying school time was misused and Democratic-leaning wards were purposely targeted. Voces denied the claims.
Meanwhile Unified has gotten complaints and open records requests from across the country, all relating to the district’s involvement with YES and Voces. Those things take staff time away from issues like raising student achievement and they make it so the district “can’t partner with Voces” anymore, even when celebrating King, Tapp said.
“We are a nonprofit. We are a public organization. We can’t get involved in politics. We cannot go down that road,” Tapp said. “We’re trying to do the right thing here and support our students for the day and do it in a way that politics aren’t part of that day.”
The district asked YES students to submit a “student-led,” Voces-free proposal for partnering with Unified on the MLK Day event, Tapp said. She added Unified is not comfortable partnering directly with Voces but would still work with its student groups.
A proposal came in Thursday, Dec. 13 but still included Voces as an event partner, was printed on the organization’s letterhead and referred district staff to Voces’ youth organizer for follow up.
Laing on Friday, Dec. 14 rejected that proposal as not being “student-led” but said students could submit another one, according to her rejection email.
But Alexia Gates, a Voces intern, senior at Horlick High School and YES leader, said students did write the proposal. Students, parents and others also filled nearly an hour of public comment time at Monday’s School Board meeting, urging board members to disregard right-wing sentiment and reinstate support for the MLK Day events.
“We take hours out of our day to plan this event and events like it,” said Rebecca Davis, a junior at Horlick High School and a YES leader. “We are asking you to invest in this day because it does mean so much to us.”
The board took no action Monday though, because the decision is up to Laing and because open meetings law requires advance notice of action items, Tapp said. Students disappointed with that result interrupted the meeting later to demand action and re-submit their Thursday, Dec. 13 proposal requesting Unified support.
The interruption was met with gaveling from board President Dennis Wiser as a security guard asked students to leave.
No new proposal had been submitted as of Tuesday night, Tapp said.
“I’m hoping to hear back,” she said. “The district doesn’t want the event to go away.”
But Gates said no new proposal is forthcoming.
“We’re not resubmitting our proposal at all,” she said. “We’re not going to separate from Voces. We are a youth branch of Voces ... Without Voces there wouldn’t be YES.”
Asked how the event would continue without Unified support, Gates said, “We’re going to fundraise. We’re going to reach out to other organizations and groups and our churches and parents and students and we’re going to pull it off.”
MLK Day support weakens
• The MLK Day event carries a price tag of about $17,000, according to Voces, and funding became a larger issue in October after conservative Milwaukee radio host Mark Belling criticized the United Way for giving Voces money. The United Way then distanced itself from Voces and said it would not provide money for the MLK Day event even though it gave $950 last year. United Way President Dave Maurer did not return phone calls or emails. Students and parents speaking to the Racine Unified School Board on Monday accused members of giving in to a “shock jock” for not providing MLK Day support.
• The Racine Community Foundation does not intend to fund this year’s event, a loss of about $7,000, according to Voces. Fund officials were not available for comment.