This story was chosen as one of our top 12 in 2010. We were lucky to be able to interview Michael Kundu, who was under fire for controversial racial remarks in an e-mail. Though Kundu profusely apologized for his statements and had been a valued Marysville School Board member until this incident, it was hard for some to forgive him.
On July 12, Michael Kundu decided to resign from the Marysville School District Board of Directors. In a release, he stated:
“Effective July 12, 2010, I am resigning my position as an elected member on the Marysville School District Board of Directors. Since my installation into the office in November 2003, I have been proud of my track record of service to the greater Marysville/Tulalip community. …”
“In my seven years of serving the students, staff and Marysville community, I have learned much more about the challenges, and occasional victories, of working and advocating for public education. In Marysville, the undeniable reality of high drop-out rates, lower-than-average academic performance (particularly poor in the arenas of math and science), and the ever-present achievement gap, demand that district leaders aggressively pursue the best available science to fully understand and implement solid tactical strategies to address those challenges.
“Finally, on my departure from the district, I would challenge the board and administration — if they truly desire to improve their relationship in the Marysville community — to prove that commitment by adopting and installing a permanent Tribal representative position/seat on the school board. I have discussed and pursued this goal for a number of years unsuccessfully, but still hold firm that such a permanent position would only benefit the communication, engagement, and accountability between the district leadership and the Tulalip students and community.”
By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Michael Kundu is of East Indian and German descent and was raised in Ontario, Canada.
He became the northwest director of Sea Shepard, an international marine wildlife conservation organization, where his opposition to aboriginal whaling and arguments against the Makah tribe whale hunt led to criticisms that his comments were racist. Kundu apologized for his comments against the tribe before running for a position on the Marysville School District Board in 2003.
In 2002, Kundu and his wife watched as the Marysville School District Board entered a huge crisis and strike. His wife was in a classroom volunteering when she heard a teacher inform parents of a district directive to stop using copiers due to budget shortages. At the same time, rumors were circulating that the superintendent ordered a $6,000 ergonomic chair for her back problems and that she was paying a driver to take her to the district from her Bellevue home.
“I took the initiative of sending in an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request for receipts, confirmed these rumors, and found some huge evidence of waste and misuse in the district,” said Kundu. “[I] eventually got rid of the superintendent and 90 percent of her senior people, and I reversed the distrust of the community and teachers in the district within 18 months.”
Kundu was unanimously elected as a legislative representative and sworn in. He was re-elected again in November of last year with much public support. However, last month, he sent an e-mail titled “race and achievement (please circulate).”
“I’m an advocate for sciences and I’ve been digesting as much research as I can on topics that are important to me. Obviously, I didn’t digest enough on this one in order to really speak credibly. That was a mistake on my behalf,” said Kundu of his e-mail which claimed that racial genetics is definitively linked to intellectual achievement.
“I willingly retract my statement and apologize for presumptively presenting it in board dialogue,” said Kundu in an apology printed in the Everett Herald on June 14.
On the same day the apology was printed, 23 legislators signed a letter condemning Kundu’s e-mail.
“We are indignant and outraged to read your inflammatory comments on ‘race and [educational] achievement,’ ” said the letter. “Your failure to confront any doubt in [the students’] minds about your ability to serve all students without bias will simply add insult to injury and will earn our continued condemnation.”
Progress of a certain era
“That’s part of the politics here. I’m being judged on one reference, not my track record,” said Kundu.
He mentions his protecting foreign language programs from district cuts, championing the inclusion of Tulalip cultural learning in all districts, and working with Don Hatch to install a permanent tribal representative to the board (which he states was never addressed by the board) as just a few of his contribution to students of color. His leadership led to the district implementing a dedicated focus on addressing the achievement gap in Marysville’s district goals, he said.
“We’re approaching issues that have to do with taboo, and our society is hesitant to approach that from a scientific perspective. This prevents us from progressing. If you want to really help kids, you need to look at some of the data instead of just saying, ‘No, this is immoral. This is bad,’ ” said Kundu.
“Like many people, I was taken aback by Mr. Kundu’s e-mail comments to fellow Marysville School District directors,” said Kevin Laverty, president of the Washington State School Director’s Association in which Kundu and all other state public school board members are involved. “I had never heard of the genetics researcher he cited, and the credibility of this researcher is cast into great doubt due to his apparent racist beliefs. I think Mr. Kundu, like all school directors, is focused on how to address the difficult problem of low achievement by some students, but he made a gross error in judgment by relying on the findings of this obscure researcher. I think Kundu’s subsequent statements indicate that he realized he made a mistake in citing this individual’s work,”
“This really truncates free speech. It has given a lot of elected officials more of a reason to not genuinely and comprehensively discuss difficult issues. If that’s progress, then I think we’re thinking about progress from a different era,” said Kundu.
Apology not accepted
“I firmly believe that all children are capable of learning. I do not believe that any one specific racial group is superior or inferior to any other,” said Kundu in his apology in the Everett Herald. “Most importantly, I adamantly reject racism and consider prejudice one of the most destructive forces in global society today. These are my true, personal convictions on the matter — despite what some in the community would suggest.”
The apology was not well received as community members and organizations like the Snohomish County NAACP and the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs geared up to publicly call for Kundu’s resignation at the June 21 board meeting.
“I’m going by what he said in those original e-mails. What he is saying now, I believe is an effort to reframe it and act like he was doing something different. I’m going to be going by what he said and not going by what he meant,” said Janice Greene, president of the Snohomish County NAACP.
“When you have beliefs such as that and you’re in charge of making educational policy, your constituents have a right to say [that] we don’t want someone with those beliefs making those policy decisions on behalf of our children. I think that is what the communities of color have said — that when he has those kinds of beliefs, we’ve lost confidence in our children’s best interest at heart,” said Lillian Ortiz-Self, commissioner of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
“Some of you have heard about one comment by one board member suggesting that some students cannot learn. That is not true. All students can learn at high levels,” said Superintendent Larry Nyland in a message to students.
On the political surface
“On a political surface, all districts adopt that premise,” said Kundu. “I absolutely feel that it’s an incorrect premise. If you start off believing that all kids are on equal footing, then you’re right off the bat going to be effecting how you can serve 504 cohort students, special ed individual education plans, and so forth. If we treat everyone with a broad similar brush, that automatically affects kids’ abilities to succeed because handicaps are not recognized.”
On June 21, angry parents and members of organizations of color asking for Kundu’s resignation gathered at the school board meeting.
“How dare you insult my race,” said Calista Phair, Miss Black Washington USA 2010, who listed achievements by Black individuals. “That doesn’t sound like any brain infractions to me.”
Her comments drew applause from the crowd.
“You can’t tell me that you have my child’s best interest at heart when you’ve already decided that he’s not going to make it,” said parent Gregor Jackson at the meeting.
Kundu’s fellow board members announced a unanimous decision requesting Kundu’s resignation. The announcement was met with loud applause from a packed room. Kundu was away on a business trip for his job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and did not attend the meeting.
Things evolve, and so should we
“You know, I never play it safe politically because I think then you’re being disingenuous,” said Kundu.
“In the past three years particularly, I have found my ability to promote progressive reforms in the district collapsing,” said Kundu.
Kundu listed his efforts to raise the graduation requirement to achieve rigor, implement a middle school uniform policy to increase discipline and equity, push for district-wide $500-per teacher materials fees, implement a superintendent performance pay structure, and more, all of which were shot down.
“I don’t see any other way around this. I don’t see any redemption that could come out of this for my comments,” said Kundu.
Despite the school board’s decision, Kundu, an elected official, cannot be forced to step down. He must decide to resign on his own volition, and many are hoping that he will. Mel Sheldon, chairman for the Tulalip Tribes has said he will initiate a recall if Kundu refuses to step down. The NAACP and other organizations have said that they will support chairman Sheldon’s efforts to pursue a recall.
Kundu said he has considered staying at the urging of state board members that have privately asked him to stay to stand up for freedom of speech. His two children currently attend school in the Marysville disrict and have two years left in the system.
“I am seeing many of our best resources (staff) in the district take other jobs outside of Marysville. Things evolve, you know, and so should we,” said Kundu, as board members and the public anxiously await his decision. ♦
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.