CENTREVILLE, Md. (AP) — An email message that Andrea Kane, the superintendent of schools in Queen Anne’s County, sent to parents at the end of the 2019-2020 school year started out unremarkably, listing achievements for the year and the dates of coming events.
Then it pivoted into less familiar terrain, at least on Maryland’s largely conservative Eastern Shore. Kane called for more and better dialogue on racism in the county and voiced support for Black Lives Matter.
Those calls have left Kane, the county’s first Black superintendent, embroiled in controversy and fighting for her job.
A Facebook group with more than 2,000 members, the Kent Island Patriots, accuses her of breaking the law. Many are angrily calling for her removal. The county school board, an all-white group of five, has largely been silent on the controversy.
Kane says she’ll enter the school year with her usual enthusiasm “for all students, no matter their background,” but she has no idea where the dispute will lead over the next 12 months, the last ones in her four-year contract.
“It’s a difficult and divisive time in Queen Anne’s County,” she said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun, her voice both somber and resigned. “It’s beyond unfortunate. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
The controversy began June 5, the last day of school, when Kane hit the “send” button on the six-paragraph email.
A Baltimore native now in her 30th year in education, Kane says she sees it as part of her duty to encourage conversation about race and racism, particularly during this period many have termed a time of national reckoning in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police this year.
In the email, she mentioned instances of racism she and her children have experienced and saluted “Black and White people coming together in nonviolent protests against the mistreatment of and discrimination against Black people and people of color.”
She also wrote that “racism is alive in our country, our state, in Queen Anne’s County, and our schools,” and cited a UCLA sociology professor, Tyrone Howard, who urged Americans to “stop challenging Black Lives Matter, as it only exacerbates the marginalization.”
Some in the county objected to those assertions and more.
Among her critics was Gordana Schifanelli, an attorney, financial adviser and mother of three who lives in Stevensville.
Schifanelli, a native of communist Yugoslavia who has lived on Kent Island for 22 years, saw the introduction of race into the message as “bizarre” and “divisive.”
In an interview with The Sun, she said Kane’s comments were inappropriate because Queen Anne’s County — a mostly rural place of nearly 50,000 people, about 85% of them white — “has no significant problem with racial hatred.”
To the 49-year-old self-described conservative, that means the superintendent has introduced a polarizing subject without cause.
Worse, she argues, Kane has done that and more in her role as head of the public schools, including advocating that children attend Black Lives Matter rallies and attending two herself.
That, Schifanelli says, means Kane has broken Article I, Section 301 of Maryland code on local government law, which bars government employees from “engag(ing) in political activity while on the job during working hours.”
She formed Kent Island Patriots in response, and the Facebook group grew rapidly.
“Dr. Kane is absolutely entitled to her opinion, but promoting her political views by using her public school platform and her position is in direct violation of the law, and we want her to stop,” Schifanelli says. “We opposed the radical indoctrination of children in our schools.”
Kane acknowledges the activities Schifanelli mentions, including her participation in rallies in the county that all agree were peaceful. But to say that she views them differently would be an understatement.
She “absolutely” supports Black Lives Matter, she says, “not as a political movement but as a human movement.”
According to Kane, 55 — whose resume includes a successful 22-year stint in Anne Arundel County Public Schools — it’s part of her responsibility to promote such dialogue, in part to support the many “Black and brown” children who have told her in private meetings of experiencing hurtful microaggressions, deliberate or otherwise, at the hands of schoolmates and teachers.
But it’s also important, she says, to facilitate conversation with the 85% of students who are white, if only to help them learn what behaviors might make minority schoolmates feel as if they’re being excluded or viewed as second-class citizens.
“If we are going to talk about people’s experiences with racism in a safe way, it’s not just children of color that are involved in that,” she says. “All children are involved in that.”
That, Kane says, is one reason she lent the county school system’s support to a voluntary online discussion on race led by outside contractors last month — a meeting that drew student participants both Black and white.
“I cannot begin to imagine why anyone would think that it’s not OK to encourage our children to talk about their experiences with racism,” she says. “That’s happening even in neighboring counties in Maryland. It’s happening all over the country.”
Nonetheless, commentators on the Patriots website objected, some on the grounds that the county had not sufficiently vetted the facilitators, one of whom, known for his work with Students Talking About Racism, or STAR, has domestic violence arrests on his record, public records confirm.
Many on the site write with harsh disapproval of an admission by a national Black Lives Matter leader, Patrisse Cullors, that she received training as a Marxist activist. Others have posted videos displaying what appear to be acts of violence by anti-racist protesters.
Several group members have signed an online petition in opposition to what they term Kane’s “radicalization” of the county’s public school children.
One member, Mike Katrinas, says such views in no way amount to racism or white supremacy, as some critics suggest.
“To my knowledge, not one person in this organization is racist, and if they were I would ask them to be removed immediately,” says Katrinas, 74, of Queenstown, who owns Annie’s Paramount Steak and Seafood House in Stevensville. “I will stand strongly behind our group until our children are given the opportunity to think for themselves and not be indoctrinated by the political and ideological views of others.”
Many on the site agree with its administrator, Schifanelli, that racism is an insignificant issue in the county.
Lee Franklin, a retired longtime teacher in Queen Anne’s County, and her husband, Jeff, both white, lead a group called the Sunday Supper Community that hosts gatherings for residents who want to discuss matters of race in the county.
Between 60 and 120 people have attended each of seven gatherings so far, she says, all in an effort to “enhance racial understanding, awareness, and respect through open conversation.”
Franklin, 71, a 36-year county resident who lives in Stevensville, says there’s no doubt there have long been problems around race in the school system.
She points to a “race equity” audit the state education department conducted of Queen Anne’s County Schools in 1994.
Investigators found, among other things, that discipline of minority students was more severe than that for white children for similar offenses.
Their recommendations — including that “the superintendent and each principal set a tone of openness and action by regularly sponsoring open discussions on the issue of race and education” — were never adopted, Franklin says.
Last month, Franklin wrote a letter to the school board in support of Kane on the supper club’s behalf and an online petition to similar effect.
The petition — which refers to criticism of Kane’s efforts as “slander” and “misinformation” — has received more than 3,300 signatures.
“It would be irresponsible for the superintendent of any school district to ignore or dismiss the need to actively engage the students, staff, and community in addressing (these) pressing topics in our communities and our country,” one petitioner commented.
As the controversy roiled for weeks, the school board had little to say. On Wednesday it issued a carefully worded statement in response to questions from The Sun.
It said board members “have not received any notification from the Superintendent regarding any racial issues or incidents in the public school system” and had “not received a petition to recall Dr. Andrea Kane’s employment …
“The members do fully support Dr. Kane with her efforts to bring awareness of injustice and discrimination,” the statement added.
Andrea Bulgaris, a veteran Queen Anne’s County kindergarten teacher, is among those offering strong support for the superintendent. She views Kane as a “dynamic” leader who visits the schools frequently, spends time with students and teachers alike, and keeps lines of communication open.
“Social justice and anti-racism education are a human issue, not a political issue, and the only way conditions in our world are going to improve is through communication and education,” she says.
The controversy shows no signs of abating — a microcosm, perhaps, of the divided state of the American electorate as a presidential election looms.
Kane is “not surprised” at the pushback she has received in a largely conservative county — Queen Anne’s has voted Republican in nine of the past 10 presidential elections — but says the level of “hateful” speech in some emails and on social media platforms has been “disturbing.”
Schifanelli says she has been branded a racist, a charge she denies, and that one critic has taken misleadingly edited screenshots of comments by posters on the website to one of her employers, the U.S. Naval Academy, in an effort to get her fired.
A multiracial group of backers held a community meeting in support of Kane at a local church, and Bulgaris says many spoke on her behalf at a virtual meeting of the school board Wednesday night. The Kent Island Patriots are planning a rally in Queenstown next month.
Kane says her tenure has featured many triumphs, including, most recently, “green” accreditation by the state of all its schools and numerous advances in academic performance, including a narrowing of the performance gap between white students and students of color.
However the current contretemps plays out, she says, she’ll be moving on when her contract expires.
“Why would I stay?” she says.