ITHACA, N.Y.—A community conversation on Sunday night provided Dr. Luvelle Brown the most extensive opportunity so far to address the bewildering saga of his resignation from his position as superintendent of the Ithaca City School District (ICSD), his subsequent rescinding of that resignation, and the allegations of professional misconduct and abuse of office that emerged in the meantime.

The conversation, held via Zoom on Sunday night, was hosted and moderated by Village at Ithaca Executive Director Meryl Phipps, an organization dedicated to educational equity for marginalized populations. The discussion was at times tense and probing, although it spent a fairly brief amount of time dealt with the allegations and resignation. She questioned Brown on a range of topics, from the headline-grabbing events of the last six weeks to his overall plan to combat racism and discrimination that exist in the public school system, specifically ICSD. Watch the entire conversation here, and view a complete transcript of the hour-long Q&A at the bottom of this page.

Resignation and Changing Course

To begin, Phipps asked Brown about what amounts to the “elephant in the room:” his announcement on Jan. 12 that he would be resigning from the district superintendent role to take a position with Discovery Education, and his follow-up announcement on Jan. 26 that he would no longer be leaving the district. Brown sounded conciliatory, asking for forgiveness from the ICSD community for the confusion that his announcement caused and acknowledging the mistakes he had made during the process. In the words of one of the students Phipps consulted with for the event’s questions: If you love us so much, why did you want to leave us? The sentiment reflected much of the anger that Brown’s resignation announcement had evoked from the community.

“Forgive me, I changed my mind,” Brown said, insisting that his love for the students in the district is unconditional. “I know the disruptions that come along when someone changes their mind, I recognize that, and I’m asking for your forgiveness. I’m sorry, from the bottom of my heart. It breaks me up to have you feel like one, whether or not I’m committed to loving you, or just wondering what was going to happen with your superintendent. (…) I learned something through this process. I underestimated how (…) when one is making a personal decision because of personal situations and things that are happening in one’s personal life, that folks will want to know why.”

Brown reiterated something he has said before, that his plan had always been to reassess his dedication to the district after a decade in power. Previously, Brown has also said that his involvement with Discovery Education had lasted for at least a year, during which time he had become more interested in the idea with moving on from his position as the superintendent. He was attracted by the opportunity to expand his influence, being better able to connect with students on a global scale, he said.

Becoming more personal and a bit emotional, Brown also mentioned the passing of his mother, an eminently influential person in his life who died just as the pandemic began, as a contributing factor in his initial decision to leave the district as he thought he’d need more time to care for his father. But his overarching message, when addressing the backlash that his announcement caused, was that he appreciated the community’s response and passion. He also, though indirectly, characterized the allegations against him as “lies, rumors, character assassination, gossip,” when talking about the challenges he knew he’d face when trying to “disrupt institutional oppression.”

Phipps followed with another question that has been floated often since Brown rescinded his decision: whether or not he had only decided to return because the allegations that emerged after his apparent resignation had interfered with his job opportunity with Discovery Education. In his answer, Brown touched upon a series of smaller questions that have been asked in the aftermath, including stating that he had not received a new or reworked contract that influenced his decision to return. He also insisted that the offer from Discovery Education had not been pulled and that it was solely his decision to return; Discovery Education declined to comment on the situation to The Ithaca Voice, saying they do not comment on personnel or potential hirings.

The final true mention of the allegations came next, though Phipps decided to only ask two questions, which she fielded from a group of students from Village at Ithaca that she sought input from. Brown offered a blanket denial to both questions, which dealt with whether or not he hired his personal assistant for “personal reasons”—it has been alleged that he had hired her based on an intimate relationship the two were having—and if he had used staff/district technology for personal use. One of the allegations stated that Brown had used a teacher’s cell phone to contact his children at one point, though Brown redirected the question towards a situation when he had set up a Google classroom that he said went unused. Phipps then asked what Brown would say to people who had lost trust in the district in the wake of the allegations.

“I’m asking folks to engage,” Brown said, recounting other controversies the district has endured during his tenure, such as the lead-water situation and the racism controversy surrounding the performing arts department. “I can go on and on, I’m reading off the challenges we’ve had over the decade, similar to what we’re having right now that are part of a growing organization. I’m asking folks to engage. (…) When we talk about student engagement, we talk about it on a continuum: rebellion to retreatism to levels of compliance to true engagement.”

Brown said he wants people to get to the “true engagement,” fueled by passion and contribution; retreatism or compliance, he said, doesn’t reflect engagement. He also insisted that he is as committed to ICSD’s students as he has ever been throughout his time at the helm of the district.

“When I hear a lack of trust, and I hear folks feeling challenged or being angry or who’ve been failed, I see and can connect that to rebellion,” Brown said. “It’s a level of engagement, it’s just not always the one we want. What I’m asking for folks to do is either be rebellious, because that means you’re engaged, or be truly engaged. (…) I want that passion. If you’ve lost trust, log into our budget meetings, our policy committee meetings, our board meetings, engage in the public dialogue.”

Racism in the Classroom

The discussion then moved on to more general topics of interest for people in the school district. Phipps asked what Brown would do to “eradicate white supremacy” within the district’s classrooms, to which he noted reforms he wants to make to student suspensions and the inequalities he has seen in those statistics at the district level, as well as impending grading changes that are being worked at in policy committees.

“I’ve lived it, I’ve committed my life to disrupting it,” Brown said. “Again, every day as a student and every single day as a professional I’ve experienced it.”

He acknowledged that, in the district, there is at least some hesitance to change because of an attraction to the status quo—but that, unfortunately, the status quo is rooted in troublesome biases and discriminatory ideology, even just subconsciously. Striving to reduce the number of people who are being given F’s, particularly during the pandemic, is a focus of that, though Phipps noted that even with the emergency grading policy implemented at Ithaca High School, 700 failing grades have still been handed out. What, then, is being done about that, particularly when the majority of those failing grades are being given to students from marginalized communities?

Brown said that dismantling and rebuilding the grading system would be a difficult task, considering how deeply ingrained it is in the school system. He was vague on specific details, outside of providing “multiple pathways to success,” but more light will likely be shed as the work of the grading policy becomes more concrete.

Later, Brown was asked by Phipps, via crowd submission, questions about how the district is supporting BIPOC students. He offered an extended thought exercise on the possibility of de-centering whiteness in the classroom and instead centering parts of the curriculum on the experiences of students of color. He cited Reconstruction.US, a site he said was started by an acquaintance, Kaya Henderson. It focuses on centering experiences of students of color as opposed to those of students who are white, something Brown said he wants to strive to instill in the district’s curriculum in some way. Even for him, it was uncomfortable, having never experienced a curriculum focused on Blackness, but he said that the discomfort could be profoundly beneficial.

“If we truly do it, and we’re going to talk more about it in the next year, and I’m expecting for folks to feel as uncomfortable as I felt when I saw it,” Brown said. “When we do it, once you see it you can’t un-see it.”

Reopening amid the Pandemic

Brown was asked if there are plans to expand in-person learning, a subject he said is frequently on his mind. CDC guidelines would have to change for them to consider more kids in classrooms, he said, but he continued that around half of district staff has received at least the first vaccination shot.

“We want more young people in classrooms,” he said. “But we need some guidance relief, and we need the vaccine roll-out to continue to work even faster than how it’s working right now. We want more young people back, and we’re working on that every single day.”

He did not commit to a percentage of teachers that would need to be vaccinated in order to re-open the schools, but did sound optimistic that barring a setback with vaccine distribution, the district is eyeing a vastly expanded in-person experience in the fall.

“I see us starting fresh with a new re-opening approach (…) If I had my way, every young person would have the opportunity to be in-person, and I think we’re going to be there (…) We will have space for everyone who wants to learn in-person in the fall, that’s my goal,” Brown said, before acknowledging that he couldn’t guarantee it. “I wish I could, but I’ve learned too much over the last year to say I’m guaranteeing anything.”

Recognizing that some students have thrived under the hybrid approach, or even with fully virtual learning, Brown said that another of his goals is to establish an entirely virtual way for students to attend school at ICSD, as well as an accompanying hybrid learning modality. At Phipps’ prompting, Brown also noted that the district has an eye to expanding outdoor learning, which has become more utilized during the pandemic.

“That’s what I’m hoping my next 10 years is, us building out multiple modalities for our community, so that families can have options and are able to choose the best modality to suit their individual needs,” Brown said. “We have a lot going on to enhance and improve what we’re doing in the virtual space, and at the same time we’re doing some stuff to improve what we’re doing in the in-person space. We’re seeking to get better with all modalities continuously.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com