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Special Report: DPI will disband equity team after backlash

By Robert Chappell

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction will disband its Partnerships and Equitable Practices (PEP) Team less than two months after it was created following sharp criticism from staff, who say it was installed “haphazardly” with no input from stakeholders or people of color who work at the state agency.

Madison365 exclusively reported in November that officials admitted it was an “error” to simply re-assign Director of Teaching and Learning Director Tamara Mouw to lead the new team and two Black women to staff it, even though none had applied for new jobs.

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

After Madison365 reported on the issue, DPI Superintendent Jill Underly emailed the entire staff of the agency, admitting a mistake and pledging “greater transparency on my and Cabinet’s general staffing actions and explicitly those connected to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” as well as professional development for herself and her executive staff on diversity, equity and inclusion practices.

At the time, members of the DPI’s Women of Color Employee Resource Group asked that the new PEP Team be dismantled and the three staff members returned to their previous positions while a new equity office is created and a formal search for a new director undertaken. Dozens of white staff members also emailed leadership expressing the same desire, members of the Women of Color group said. The group was told that would be too complicated to do, according to several members of that group.

However, about a month later, McCarthy told them the PEP team would, in fact, be disbanded.

In an email to staff Monday, Underly informed the rest of the agency’s 641 employees.

“After significant discussion and reflection with Cabinet—and leaders across the department—I have made the decision to disband the team. We will be working with the members of the PEP Team in the coming weeks to articulate what this means for their individual roles,” she wrote.

In the email, she further acknowledged “underlying harm from this decision, and from practices and habits beyond the creation of the PEP Team.” She pledged that both she and top leadership would go through the DPI’s Equity Onboarding Series, which McCarthy described as “a multi-part training developed by DPI staff to help employees advance their understanding of equity.” Underly also wrote that she remains “committed to the idea of creating a team—in a truly collaborative fashion—to lead and assist with the agency’s equity work.”

A member of the Women of Color group said they still hope to participate in restorative justice practices with agency leadership.

“We were hesitant about it at first, I know, just because we don’t want to have to keep on doing restorative circles because if you’re not going to make any changes then harm is going to continue to be done,” she said. “We’re hoping that this is the step in the next direction.”