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Sun Prairie school board president calls YWCA CEO “divisive” in email to YWCA board chair; later apologizes for “misunderstanding”


In an email obtained by Madison365, Sun Prairie School Board President Steve Schroeder told the president of the YWCA Madison’s board of directors that CEO Vanessa McDowell’s comments were “inaccurate and divisive” a day after a member of the school district’s administrative staff falsely claimed the district had struck a consultation agreement with the nonprofit organization on restorative justice and McDowell publicly said no such agreement existed.

Since then, both Schroeder and the administrator, Sarah Chaja-Clardy, have emailed private apologies to McDowell, acknowledging that no partnership was in place and that they should not have invoked the name of the 112-year-old organization, which is known for its anti-racism work, to imply a partnership that didn’t yet exist.

McDowell has demanded a public apology.

How will you punish this slave?

The controversy began on February 1, the first day of Black History Month, when sixth-grade students at Patrick Marsh Middle School were asked, in a social studies assignment, to imagine how they would “punish” a “disrespectful” slave.

The lesson was not part of any district-approved curriculum. The teachers involved were immediately placed on administrative leave and an investigation undertaken.

At the February 8 meeting of the Board of Education, Chaja-Clardy, who is director of secondary teaching, learning and equity, said the district was consulting with the YWCA on restorative justice work and had plans to partner with the Transformative Action Network and the Courageous Conversations Global Foundation.

Assistant Superintendent for Teaching, Learning and Equity Stepahnie Leonard-Witte also announced that the district would commit to hire a full-time administrator to handle diversity, inclusion and equity by July 1.

However, reached by text message during the meeting, McDowell told Madison365 that no such partnership was in place.

In a 10-page statement issued on February 9, the district clarified that Chaja-Clardy had reached out to YWCA Madison Restorative Justice Manager Bill Baldon, who agreed to help create a script for a restorative justice circle, but as an individual, not as a representative of the YWCA. The statement says Chaja-Clardy offered to pay him — as an individual — for his work, but he declined the offer and said that a partnership with the YWCA to provide racial equity training over the summer might be a possibility. 

Shortly after that statement was issued, Schroder emailed Joyce Dieter, the president of the YWCA Madison board of directors, expressing “deep concerns about the words and actions” of McDowell.

He wrote that McDowell’s confirmation that there was no partnership between SPASD and YWCA “at a time of crisis for our Black and Brown community members were neither helpful nor productive in any manner. Further, Ms. McDowell’s inaccurate comments diverted the time and attention of the Sun Prairie Area School District administrators from responding to the racism that manifested itself in our school environment on February 1, 2021, to addressing and correcting an misleading news story published with comments from Ms. McDowell that caused even further delay in our ability to support our Black and Brown students, staff, and community members.”

He later wrote, “We regret any disconnect between our conversations with Mr. Baldon and upper levels of YWCA management, but our sincere intentions were to meaningfully collaborate with a respected community partner to help our community move forward. The district would gain nothing by speaking untruthfully at a public school board meeting, so I fail to understand why anyone would assume negative intentions when a phone call could have brought us back together on the same page.”

He has not reached out to McDowell by phone, however.

Apologies offered

On Thursday, February 11 — two days after the statement clarifying why SPASD officials had claimed a partnership with YWCA and Schroeder’s email to Dieter, Chaja-Clardy emailed McDowell a private apology, acknowledging there was no partnership agreement between SPASD and YWCA.

“I am writing to express my sincerest apology for using the name of the YWCA in our Board presentation to the community of the Sun Prairie Area School District on Monday night,” she wrote. “In planning for restoration with our staff and students with good intent, I acknowledge that the employee with whom I was engaging was doing so outside of his role at the YWCA.  Accordingly, I should not have used the name of the YWCA, and for that I am sorry.  I will refrain from using any language of indication that the Sun Prairie Area School District is working in consultation, partnership, or any other form of work together with the YWCA without a formalized memorandum of agreement in place, should that ever transpire.”

McDowell forwarded the apology to the SPASD Board of Education, adding, “Sarah’s personal apology is a start, but I would like and deserve a PUBLIC apology from the school board as well as Sarah.”

Dieter also responded, endorsing McDowell’s request for a public apology.

This morning, a week after the board meeting at which the partnership was claimed, Shroeder also sent an apology to the YWCA.

I am writing today as the President of the Sun Prairie Area School District Board of Education to express my apology on behalf of the entire Sun Prairie Area School District, to the YWCA of Dane County, including Ms. Vanessa McDowell, for any and all disputes and disagreements that have occurred over the last week between the District and the YWCA,” he wrote. “I take full responsibility for the misunderstanding regarding the use of the YWCA name during the School Board meeting on February 8 in describing the restorative work we plan to do.”

McDowell again responded, requesting a public apology, but such an apology has not been announced as of the time of publication of this story.

“He sent an email maligning my character” to the YWCA board president, McDowell said in an email to Madison365. “It was bad. Crazy thing is he still has not addressed me personally.”

This story will be updated if a public apology is issued.