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Christina School Board member censured over remarks about low-income families

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Christina School Board member Fred Polaski (second from right) was criticized at a board meeting Tuesday for comments about low-income students last week

The Christina School Board has voted to censure one of its members after he made comments that have been condemned as “racist” and “classist.”

At a school board meeting Tuesday, Christina School Board member Fred Polaski defended comments he made at a board study session last week that the best thing for some children growing up in “high-poverty areas” would be to be removed from their families as infants and returned after they have graduated high school. 

Polaski said before his fellow board members voted unanimously to censure him that he would accept the move. 

“My intent of this is, we need to do the most we can as a society and the state of Delaware to support children so they can get a good education,” he said. “I had no intent of meaning it to be racist, even though I now understand it was taken that way. There are children of all races who have these similar conditions that need to be addressed.”

Mary Pieri, a teacher in the Christina School District, was not satisfied with Polaski’s response.  

“I still don’t think you took responsibility for the actual contents of the comments,” she said to him at Tuesday’s meeting. “Instead, you apologized for the way in which the comments were received by others. That right there shows you have little understanding of how hurtful and racist your comments are.”

Pieri called Polaski’s ideas “logistically ridiculous” and dealing in “extremely racist tropes.”

“Do you firmly believe that people in poverty are not doing what they think they should be doing because they don’t want to?” she asked Polaski. “Or could it be that the structural and racist barriers that have been placed around people of color for centuries have specifically denied them the many opportunities you and I take for granted?” 

Former Christina School Board member and parent Elizabeth Scheinberg called for Polaski to be censured. 

“That a board member uttered this diatribe into a mic is a bigoted disgrace that requires an equal response,” she said. “How is this district going to move forward when this is who we have leading us?”

The controversy comes weeks after Odyssey Charter School board members were criticizedfor joking about “build[ing] a wall” between Odyssey and Academia Antonia Alonzo, the dual-language Spanish-English charter school next door. Leadership of Academia Antonia Alonzo have reportedly calledfor the entire Odyssey board and administrative leadership to resign. 

Polaski made the initial statements about students and parents living in poverty following a presentation to the board on Feb. 4 by State Sen. Elizabeth "Tizzy" Lockman (D-Wilmington), co-chair of the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity, about the Consortium’s work, including preparation for development of a redistricting plan for Wilmington and northern New Castle County.

“A lot more resources need to be provided for students that are in poverty,” said Polaski, after Lockman’s presentation concluded. 

“I've jokingly said this to some people, but I'm half serious about it too,” Polaski continued. “I think there's children growing up in high-poverty areas, not just the City [of Wilmington,] but elsewhere. The best thing we could do for them, and I know this is not acceptable today— when they're about 12 weeks old, take them away from mom and hand them back when they're 18 years old, graduated from high school. But provide that home environment somehow because they're not getting it where they live.”

Polaski noted earlier Tuesday that his remarks were made in the context of a discussion of possible realignment of school districts. He says he supports a City of Wilmington school district to “try to get a sense of community back in the Wilmington [public] schools,” which are currently divided among several districts. 

Board member Elizabeth Campbell Paige sent an email to the Christina School Board and Superintendent Feb. 7, days after the board study session. 

“Something has been weighing on me very heavily,” she wrote in the email. “I am sincerely sorry for not speaking up when one of us made what I deem to be highly inappropriate and racist comments. I was so taken aback that I did not respond. I do not want my silence to indicate agreement.”

Paige went on to estimate that all board members agree the issues plaguing students reach beyond the classroom.

“I do NOT believe that taking children living in poverty from their families is any kind of solution, or the best thing we can do for kids,” she wrote. 

At the board meeting Tuesday, Paige explained that Polaski’s comments struck her as “racist” because she said she had never heard him speak about students in the suburban parts of the district the way he spoke about students in the majority-black City of Wilmington. 

Christina School Board President Meredith Griffin, Jr. called the comments “classist at best.” He emphasized the need for the board and the state to focus on the root causes of poverty and worried the sentiments Polaski expressed could empower racists or white supremacists. He also agreed with the suggestion of Board Vice President Keeley Powell that the board pursue implicit bias training.  

Tuesday morning, Sen. Lockman called Polaski’s statements “disturbing.” 

“But I’m also concerned that the focus on these comments as if they are isolated is distracting from what they represent: very real issues harming very real children,” she said in a statement Tuesday, noting the work of the Redding Consortium is to address these issues. 

“I appreciate the outrage about this offensive comment and those made at other school board meetings recently, but I remain more concerned about the lack of outrage for the systemic inequities they reflect, which keep so many students from getting the education they deserve,” Lockman added. “I hope that, beyond the apologies and resignations that may or may not result from the anger such comments rightfully inspire, that we channel that energy into successfully implementing meaningful, deep reforms in our public school system.”


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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