BRISTOL — Students from Mount Hope High School are calling for the resignations of three School Committee members, the latest in a series of controversies that have led to the departures in recent months of three school leaders in the Bristol Warren Regional School District.

The students, members of the Bristol-Warren Student Council, are staging a rally Saturday at Bristol Town Hall to voice their concerns.

Students are calling for the resignations of Marjorie McBride, Tara Thibaudeau and Sheila Ellsworth because of their comments about a teacher-training grant proposal whose facilitator, a Black woman, has worked extensively on empowering students of color.

“Three members opposed this grant not because of the grant itself but because of its facilitator,” said student council President Sophia Virgadamo, a junior. “The training she was giving had nothing to do with diversity or equity.”

Rabbi Barry Dolinger, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, spoke out in July against the Bristol Warren Regional School District's plan to start school on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Barry Dolinger, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, spoke out in July against the Bristol Warren Regional School District’s plan to start school on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

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Only one member of the School Committee contacted by The Journal this week agreed to be interviewed. This was how committee member Carly Reich, who supported the grant proposal, described the events:

High school principal Deb DiBiase had asked to hire an educator, Simona Simpson-Thomas, to do some professional development with teachers. Simpson-Thomas’s website says she is a woman of color who promotes the success of Black and brown students.

“Some of my colleagues took offense,” Reich said. “They said they felt that by hiring Miss Simpson-Thomas, they would be prioritizing Black and brown students over other students.”

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Reich said committee finance chair Ellsworth and Thibaudeau were among those who shared this view. Neither member responded to the Journal’s emails.

In a recording of the Oct. 25 meeting, Thibaudeau said the $7,000 grant wasn’t “a good fit for our district.”

That prompted a sharp retort from DiBiase, who said the grant was about increasing equity for lower-income and multilingual learners, according to Reich.

The meeting devolved into a shouting match between the audience and the committee and was briefly adjourned. The grant was ultimately turned down by a vote of 5 to 4. Members Victor Cabral and Karen Cabral ultimately joined Ellsworth, Thibaudeau and McBride in opposition.

“There has been a stark political divide in our community,” Reich said Wednesday. “Everything comes down to a 5-4 vote on the committee. It has more than anything to do with fear. What you are seeing nationally is playing out here.’

“I was asked, ‘Is this racism?’ Absolutely,” Simpson-Thomas said. “They looked at my website and assumed they didn’t want to partner with me. They made a lot of assumptions without having me at the table.

“As a Black woman, I have over 17 years of [education] experience,” she said. “I have degrees from Brown and Howard universities. To be questioned about what I bring to the table was hard to hear.”

The School Committee has been in turmoil since this summer, when the committee refused to reschedule the start of school from the first day of Rosh Hashanah. That provoked an outcry from Jewish leaders across the state and led to the resignation of Supt. Jonathan Bryce.

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Two interim superintendents, Bob Hicks and Edward Mara, each departed after a few weeks, reportedly because of the School Committee’s micro-management. Mara had run the district for six years until his retirement.

Monday night, about 150 residents, mostly teachers along with members of the student council, packed the School Committee meeting. One member of the student council, Edda Petrillo, spoke.

She said the committee hasn’t been watching out for all students, calling some of its actions racist, and said those members who felt that way should resign. Her comments were cut off by the school’s lawyer, but when the crowd objected, she was allowed to finish.

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“As a community, I think we need to acknowledge that we have a problem, that there is some serious tension here, whether it’s fear based or politically based,” Reich said. “And it’s interrupting caring for the needs of our students.”

Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Mt. Hope High: Students call for School Committee members to resign


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