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School board issues memorandum regarding member’s comments

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Oct 14, 2021


A Lee County School Board member’s comments regarding about the local Guatemalan community resulted in a unanimously passed memorandum supporting student dignity.

The move was directed at comments District 3 School board member Chris Patricca made during a Sept. 24 Zoom meeting with the Estero Council of Community Leaders that were construed as derogatory toward students of Guatemalan heritage. She subsequently apologized.

“I move that we, as members of the Lee County’s School Board, adopt the attached memorandum that reasserts our commitment to uphold the ideals of respect and human dignity for the Guatemalan community and for all communities,” Board member Betsy Vaughn said during Tuesday night’s meeting.

The memo stated that “Members of the School Board of Lee County believe that public schools and elected officials have the responsibility to ensure the highest ideals of education and that human dignity is upheld at all levels of inclusion. In that light we are saddened by the recent public remarks by one of our members. It is important for the public to understand that neither the law or board policy allow for one individual board member to speak for the entire board. There are seven of us that make up the school board of Lee County. When an individual board member makes comments, those are that person’s personal comments and should not be deemed reflective of the board in its entirety. When the school board speaks, we do so as a united board. We, as members of the Lee County school board, stand steadfast in our commitment to foster an inclusive educational environment where the Guatemalan community and all communities are treated with dignity and respect by all members of the educational community including their elective representatives. The school board of Lee County is committed to be a world class school system and to ensuring each student without regard to race, ethnicity, religious belief, national origin, disability, ancestry, socio-economic status, gender, or sexual orientation achieves his or her highest personal potential.”

The board had a very lengthy discussion during its Monday briefing meeting, as well as their Tuesday briefing and action meeting, regarding the comments. The discussion focused on use the District’s logo as a backdrop in the Zoom session, and having access to information some of the board members felt they did not have the same privy to.

During that Zoom meeting, Patricca said “We also have a huge influx of students from Guatemala where the formal education system goes to grade three. If you have a 14-year-old that moves here from Guatemala, you can’t put them in fourth grade, so they go to high school. The biggest challenge that those principals are facing is getting them out of the bathroom because they have never seen running water before. So they go into the bathroom, turn the water facet on and turn it off and then they flush the toilet. They are fascinated by you know, plumbing. They are not bad people, not bad kids, not unable to learn, just culturally it is such a huge difference for them. They speak Spanish with a Mayan dialect. We don’t have teachers that speak Spanish with a Mayan dialect. We are constantly working on ways to make the transition easier for those students.”

Patricca apologized to her fellow board members.

“I am genuinely sorry this has impacted the board and the district. I would never purposely say anything to hurt a person, any group of people in our community,” she said.

Board member Melisa Giovannelli asked for a full investigation against Patricca’s “abuse of power,” which failed, as only Board members Gwyn Gittens and Giovannelli supported the motion.

One board member said it was another black eye for the entire board.

“We have a mission and vision. Where are the children in all of this? We have board members consistently in fighting publicly. We don’t enforce our rules, so why do you think anyone should pay attention to us and have respect for us? We are not a team. We are all working on our own agendas and not focusing on the business of the district. We look like a bunch of ridiculous women. We are intelligent and educated people with good hearts with families who are embarrassed by us. It is time to take a look at ourselves and stop attacking one another and get the job done,” Board member Mary Fischer said.