Schools in Utah’s capital city have become steadily more diverse each year — as of this fall, 24 of its 38 schools have minority groups that outnumber white students. One elementary school is nearly 90 percent students of color.

Though the numbers are a landmark — giving Salt Lake City School District the highest minority student population in the state — they’ve highlighted an ongoing dispute over how the district is serving these kids and their families.

A former diversity director charges that the district has a history of blocking programs to help students of color. But the district says recent changes to bolster its equity department have improved its support for minorities.

Chief among those: New Superintendent Lexi Cunningham has, for the first time, made the district’s director of diversity a cabinet-level position.

And Sandra Buendía, a former East High School principal with a background of working with English learners and refugee students, was tapped this summer for the inaugural role. “We saw the need for students to see themselves represented,” she said of her appointment.

In the job, Buendía has focused on getting diverse voices in front of students. She has purchased books written by American Indian authors for every school. She has contracted with outside agencies to get translators who can speak to families — with 90 languages spoken in the district. She has hired a mentor of color to help high school students. And she has started a “targeted intervention” program that examines, with data, which demographic groups could use more support in individual schools.

“It’s being really sensitive to representing our communities for who they are and what they bring,” said Buendía, the current executive director of educational equity and student support.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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The district spent a year — and posted several ads — to try to find a replacement for its former diversity director. District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said the superintendent “was really picky about who she wanted to hire for that.”

“That shows what a priority this is for the current administration,” she said.

But the replacement would also be coming in after controversy in the department, which led to a federal lawsuit filed in October.

The previous equity leader, Kathleen Christy, accused the district and its former superintendent, McKell Withers, of shortchanging students of color and discriminating against her.

Christy, a black woman hired to serve as equity director in 2007, argues she tried to put similar programs in place but Withers didn’t give her department the funding or support to do so. In one example, she said, Withers rejected her request to print important announcements for students’ parents in the 10 most used languages, besides English.

It was too expensive and time-consuming, he allegedly told her.

In 2016, before his retirement, she added, Withers reorganized the district’s leadership to have three chief officers report to the superintendent. She was asked to serve under one of the three, a man who had no experience working with equity issues, she said.

Later that year, Withers gave her a five-day suspension and demoted her to equity plan coordinator after an investigation found she had used the title “doctor” before she had her dissertation signed off by a committee at the University of Utah, her lawsuit said.

The school board upheld her demotion in October 2016, and she stepped down less than a year later “after being discriminated against and humiliated by her superiors,” her federal lawsuit said.

Christy’s law firm did not respond to requests for comment. Withers denied the allegations as “completely disappointing and the opposite of reality.”

He said an independent investigator advised him to terminate her, but he wanted to give her the option to stay. “She’s recast that in a different light,” he said.

The restructuring, he said, was meant to be temporary until the new superintendent came into office. And Withers said that “there was a lack of action out of that office” while Christy was in charge.

But Christy is accusing the whole district of being slow to act to help its growing population of minority students.

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Christy’s complaints are based on an old model, the district said, that isn’t in place any more.

Buendía has been holding monthly trainings with school principals throughout the district to talk about how they can be more inclusive. She examines data to figure out which demographics might be at the bottom of achievement at their schools. If Pacific Islanders students were, for example, then she would help the school consider hiring a Pacific Islander mentor or get more Pacific Islander parents involved.

When she added the American Indian books to school libraries, she and the district’s Title XI coordinator sat down with tribal leaders to review the selections and make sure they were representative. She’s also working with homeless students and students with disabilities. Her job is not just to support diversity, Buendía said, but to provide equity.

“It’s making sure that we’re really identifying and serving those students in a way that demonstrates that we can close the opportunity gap,” she said. “The school board and the superintendent absolutely have demonstrated that educational equity and student support are a priority now.”

Salt Lake City School District has the highest minority student population in the state — 56.6 percent — and is one of only three districts in Utah with more than 50 percent students of color (the other two are Ogden and San Juan).

Michael Clara, the only member of the school board who opposed Christy’s demotion, said the way she was treated “brought me to tears.”

Now a former member of the board, Clara said the case offers a stark distinction between the administrations. He’s happy to see some of the changes made under the new district leadership and with Buendía.

That’s a start, Clara said, to fixing the issues raised by Christy. He’d also like to see a more well-defined appeals process for staff members who may need to question their discipline. And he’d like for there to be even more voices of color throughout the district.

“It affects minority students the most when the system is dysfunctional,” he said. “But I think there’s progress. It’s definitely progress.”