A Somali mom came to the Faribault school board last summer to share concerns about drug abuse in the East African community, prompting the district to pursue — and win — a $1.1 million state grant meant to curb drug use among Black, Indigenous and other students of color.
Such funding measures are typically accepted without controversy. But this one, discussed at a November meeting attended by four of the board's seven members, revealed a rift among the officials when two of them objected to the grant's mission and questioned whether accepting it would discriminate against white students.
Board Chair Chad Wolff is bringing the funding up for another vote — this time of the full board — on Monday. At least five members say they'll vote in favor this time.
"I believe our students will benefit from it," Wolff said in an email.
Board Member LeeAnn Lechtenberg cast a vote against the grant funding at the Nov. 21 meeting. She argued that accepting money for programs targeted specifically for students of color was inequitable.
"Would we ever go after a grant that only targeted whites with hopes that it would trickle down to our BIPOC community? Would we do the opposite? And I don't think we would," Lechtenberg said during the meeting.
Board Member Richard Olson concurred.
"These grants shouldn't even be brought up to the board," he said, asking what kind of image accepting the money would project upon the district. "Oh, we'll favor the colored but not the white kids?"
Olson did not respond to requests for comment.
Wolff and Board Member John Bellingham voted to accept the funding. Wolff, who sets the agenda for each meeting, said he will bring the resolution up for a vote of the full board after the last one ended in a 2-2 stalemate.
Board Member Jerry Robicheau, who was out of the country during the meeting, said the state money will serve a critical need for students and families. He and Board Member Courtney Cavellier said they'll vote to accept the grant funding Monday.
"To do anything less than that is a dereliction of our duty to provide a quality education for our students," Robicheau said in an interview. "Anything that benefits one group of individuals is going to benefit a much larger audience."
Lechtenberg said in an interview that she's since reconsidered her stance on the grant. She was concerned that accepting the money would exclude district staff from offering services to white students.
She said she has spoken with various community groups concerned about drug abuse among local students over the last week and those conversations convinced her nobody would be excluded.
"I just wanted to have the same services available for the families who don't fit into that category if they're having substance abuse issues," she said.
More than 60% of students in the Faribault district are children of color. About 25% are Black and 28% are Latino.
District officials were motivated to seek resources for drug abuse prevention programs after a Somali mother who attended the Aug. 22 board meeting spoke about the local East African community's struggles with substance abuse. The Minnesota Department of Human Services last year established a fund that local governments, nonprofits and community groups can tap to address such issues.
Studies show that people of color are less likely to receive treatment for addictive disorders. And despite their similar overall rates of cannabis use, Black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested as white people for possession.
DHS officials in a statement said their own data, coupled with conversations they've had with "partners and the people we serve," show Black, Indigenous and other communities of color require dedicated efforts to address those disparities.
The grant funding Faribault schools officials secured from the agency provides $42,000 to survey district families and staff on how best to prevent students from turning to drugs. Both state and district officials say that kind of participatory decision-making is essential.
"Evidence shows that services are more effective when they are culturally relevant," assistant DHS commissioner Eric Grumdahl said. "DHS is deeply committed to eliminating disparities, and will continue to support targeted efforts to improve behavioral health outcomes for all Minnesota youth."
The Faribault district's application for the grant includes salaries for a full-time project coordinator, a media consultant, a youth coordinator and $120,000 for six local culturally specific organizations to assist in surveying the community.
Faribault Public Schools mental health coordinator Janet Lewis Muth stressed that the district's efforts would focus on prevention. While officials want the community to decide which tactics the district will eventually employ, she and community education and engagement director Zach Pruitt said they intend to launch a survey to find out how prevalent drug use is among students.
They believe drug users will represent a narrow slice of the student body and that shedding light on the statistic will alleviate peer pressure and lead to a decline in the numbers.
"Most teenagers get access to substances from other teenagers," Muth said. "When the population of students who are using gets smaller, the access to other students decreases."
The school board will meet Monday at 5:30 p.m. in the district offices, 710 17th St. S.W., in Faribault.