Since the beginning of the school year, half of the staff on Champlain Valley School District’s diversity, equity and inclusion team has resigned.

As reasons for their resignations, the staff members cited gatekeeping by administrators and general exhaustion from taking on the taxing work in addition to their full-time jobs during the pandemic. Stepping down, the now-former coaches gave up thousands of dollars — the two lead coaches were to be paid $15,000 for a year of DEI work and the other eight coaches $7,500 each.

“We had no positional power within the district,” said Vicki Mascareño Nelson, former lead DEI staff and counselor at Hinesburg Community School.

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Without a seat in the administration, it was hard to make systemic changes and prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion work, said Mascareño Nelson.

Burnout and a lack of leadership and support for DEI work in the district played a role in the mass resignation, according to former coaches. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a dispute between the DEI team and the administration at Charlotte Central School over the hiring process to fill that school’s vacant DEI position.

Broadly, the DEI team wanted to come up with a consistent hiring process across the district, while Charlotte administrators wanted to hire a staff member who had expressed interest in the position. The dispute over the process ultimately resulted in charges by the Charlotte Central School administrators in an email that DEI staff members were upholding white supremacy by trying to slow the school’s hiring process and delaying their DEI work. After that, five DEI coaches resigned.

Now the school’s DEI team, which is supposed to have 10 members, has just two; it had lost three other staff members last spring and summer.

Former coaches who spoke with VTDigger said the Charlotte Central School dispute was an issue in itself, but it also symbolized something bigger — the refusal of people in leadership to give up power, something they said is necessary to tackle inequity.

Charlotte Central School Principals Stephanie Sumner and Jen Roth, who were the primary targets of the former coaches’ ire, declined to comment.

This is just the latest hit in the district’s DEI program, which has been on shaky ground almost since its inception a year and a half ago. The district’s first diversity equity and inclusion director, hired in the summer of 2020, left a week into her tenure. The second, hired in the summer of 2021, lasted only a few months.

The first coach, Rhiannon Kim, resigned over salary disagreements prior to signing a contract with the district. Then, Mascareño Nelson and Yasamin Gordon, now Winooski’s equity director, suggested the DEI coach model, in which 10 staff members would lead DEI work in exchange for a stipend.

The two had decided the schools shouldn’t hold off on equity work just because they didn’t have a director, explained Mascareño Nelson.

But going into a second year without a full-time diversity director, someone to lead the charge and work as a middleman between the diversity coaches and the administration, was too much for the coaches, who said the coaching role was like having a second full-time job.

This comes at a time when institutions around Vermont, one of the whitest states in the nation, are grappling with how to increase diversity, equity and inclusion, and reports show stark divides along race and socioeconomic lines.

Now is time for the Champlain Valley School District to move forward and push past this conflict, said Rene Sanchez, who became the district’s school superintendent on July 1. Sanchez says the district plans to lead conversations with current and former DEI coaches and Charlotte Central School administrators.

“We’re looking for a way to move forward and make progress with our equity policy,” Sanchez said, “ensuring that we infuse equity throughout the district.”

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