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DPI admits “error” in “haphazardly” creating equity office, assigning director & staff who didn’t apply


This story has been updated to include a response from Superintendent Jill Underly issued after our initial reporting was published.

Several Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) employees are calling on the agency to dismantle the new Office of Partnerships and Equitable Practices (PEP) because it was created “haphazardly” with no input from people of color in the department — or even the people assigned to run and staff the new office.

DPI officials acknowledge that the new office, intended to focus on equity, was established in September not by announcing the opening and recruiting a new equity director, but by reassigning Director of Teaching and Learning Tamara Mouw to lead it and assigning two employees from other teams to staff it — none of whom even applied for their new jobs. 

DPI officials also now acknowledge that was a mistake.

What happened?

Madison365 spoke separately with several DPI employees who asked to remain anonymous. We have granted that anonymity because they feared they could face professional ramifications for speaking openly.

All the employees we spoke with said Superintendent Jill Underly seemed dedicated to equity work and was excited to meet with people from marginalized groups when she first took office in July after being elected in April. Specifically, multiple women of color who began meeting informally for lunch several years ago have formed a more formal affinity group within DPI and said Underly pledged to meet with them monthly — but stopped after only two meetings.

“She shared with us her thinking of creating a family and engagement team. And we basically said, ‘if you want to create that, that’s fine. What we really need is the equity team,’” said one member of that group.  

“We were informed that they were going to create an office of family engagement or something like that,” said another member. “And we were like, that’s great. But we felt that that was going to still continue to center white voices. If we did not call it the office of equity and inclusion or something that would let people know that we were able to tackle the issues of race, of disabilities, whatever … if it wasn’t going to say that, then it wasn’t going to be helpful. It was going to center the same voices.”

“What we have been told multiple times at DPI is that equity’s everybody’s work,” another employee said. “Okay, it’s everybody’s work. But we felt that it’s necessary to have an office that really oversees that work. Make sure it’s coherent, all that kind of stuff.”

Members of the group were surprised about a month later when they learned the proposed Family Engagement Team had been renamed “Partnerships and Equitable Practices,” tasked with implementing DPI’s equity plan, and staffed without consulting them, or anyone else — including the new office’s director and staff, who were simply reassigned to that new office without consultation.

“It was brought back to us and the priorities of the office were outlined, there was a director, there were people moved from teams and people were finding out about this like the day before it happened,” one member said. “We were just stunned.”

“I think it was unanimous that we all shared our concerns with having white leadership in this office,” another DPI employee said. “An equity office in the state agency is a historical event. … and if we really are wanting to elevate equity as a priority, we need to make sure that we center institutionally marginalized voices. And in our agency, as well as in the entire state of Wisconsin, they are black people and people of color.”

None of the DPI employees criticized Mouw specifically; in fact, many praised the work she had done as Director of Teaching and Learning.

Jill Underly. DPI photo.

One employee described her as “extremely competent” and another said, “Tamara does amazing equity work. She was doing amazing equity work on her team. So it wasn’t a bizarre selection.”

But moving Mouw to this new role overseeing Partnerships and Equitable Practices has caused a disruption in the Teaching and Learning team, which now has no director.

“Tamara even being moved from that position, just uprooted a lot of her work. And to me, it was at a very detrimental time because we’re just coming out of this pandemic,” one employee said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. Tamara is very heavily immersed in the work that she was doing on that team and to pull her out seemed very strange. Why would you uproot her from that work?”

“It’s hurtful and it’s dismissive of the work that not only the women of color group is doing, and are doing without pay,” another employee said. “A lot of times we’re doing a lot of equity work above and beyond. The fact that some of those groups that are focused on equity specifically were not consulted, were not talked to, were not able to help create what that department should look like, just seems very dismissive that our voices were not heard or included. And we thought that this administration wanted to do things differently.”

The Response

The women of color group, which now includes about a dozen members, responded to the news of the creation of the new office with an October 7 letter to Underly, which Madison365 has obtained.

The formation of this team was a hierarchical and unilateral decision made by leaders of a governmental agency that continues to erase the contributions of staff at DPI and communities of color across the state of Wisconsin,” the letter reads in part, adding that many stakeholders within the agency had advocated for the creation of an equity office but “their expertise were institutionally removed from any discussion, collaboration or thought partnership as there were no formal or informal communication on the implementation of this team.

“The speedy implementation of an important and historical team for any state agency robbed our state of a well-thought-out process, that at the very least would afford our staff of color to interview and potentially, be selected to a director position. Rather, it was a decision of this body to continue to invest, support and lift the voice of our white colleagues,” the letter reads, culminating in a request to “dismantle the team effective immediately” and “engage with multiple stakeholders in a legitimate process guided by our Equity Decision & Policy Tool to create an Educational Equity Team.”

The Equity Decision & Policy Tool is a protocol that DPI staff are supposed to use when making decisions regarding equity. For example, before large decisions are made, the tool calls for staff to ask, “How have you engaged stakeholders who are members of the communities impacted by your work? How will you continue to partner with diverse stakeholders to ensure educational equity for all students?”

DPI staff say the tool intended to help make decisions with equity in mind was not used in the creation of the office intended to lead the department’s equity work.

Underly responded on October 11, writing that the formation of the new office was “an urgent priority for me” and declined to dismantle it as requested.

“I believe the PEP team we’ve assembled possesses the skills, knowledge, and experience to carry this critical work forward. As such, we will be moving forward with the team and its charge to advance equity and partnerships both within the department and in our communities across Wisconsin,” Underly wrote.

That response didn’t sit well with some employees of color.

“I honestly believe that we need to dismantle the team and start over with a more equitable process where the voices of folks are included at the department, and even maybe outside stakeholders as well,” one employee said. “I mean, there’s a lot of external groups that we work with that are directly impacted by this decision … I really do believe that they should just start over.”

What’s next?

Since her October 11 email, Underly’s office seems to have moderated its position somewhat, and her office’s executive director said the department will enter into a restorative justice process with stakeholders and will reconsider the equity team and its staff.

Thomas McCarthy. DPI photo.

“We made a decision to favor expediency over an equitable search,” said Tom McCarthy, executive director of the office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. “And that is an error, and one that we are working with our staff to examine, be honest about and potentially revisit.”

McCarthy said Mouw will continue in her new role for the time being.

Because we have heard from our staff that it was that big of a deal, that big of a harm, that we should be sort of, not necessarily pressing pause — because I think the work the team is doing is still come to benefit and fruition — but to work with them on whether this structure is something we should keep going forward or whether we should go back and do an open search,” McCarthy said.

“What we’re trying to engage in, is some restorative practices at the agency level because I think until we understand the issue internally really well, and have put the changes in place that are necessary to help those staff feel more engaged, we’re just going to continue to spin our wheels and bump into those issues,” he said. “And then, as those conversations unfold, looking at this decision that we made, and being honest about the fact that it caused people some harm and that we may need to revisit all of it.”

McCarthy said at this point dismantling the new team and starting over is “something that we have on the table.” 

Employees acknowledge that the superintendent’s office has reached out in the past week or so to express willingness to go through a restorative process, but hasn’t yet seen a timeline for when that might begin.

“They did communicate that they would like to do a restorative circle, but I don’t know if they necessarily know what restoring harm means,” one employee said. “And in this case, you can actually reverse that harm and start the process over, which would be the best decision. Not just say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry.’”

“They asked us to be part of this restorative justice, and we have said yes. And we’re still waiting to hear when this office is going to be dismantled,” another employee said. “We understand that it’s going to take time, we understand a lot of things, that it’s not going to happen overnight, specifically in this agency. But collaboration means that we talk with each other. Not just announcements of your unilateral decisions.”

Underly issued an email to DPI staff Thursday afternoon following the initial publication of this story, pledging more transparency and equity training for herself and executive staff. She did not pledge to dismantle the PEP team as requested.

Mouw did not respond to a request for comment.