An external audit of the Sartell-St. Stephen school district — which found that students are concerned about racism, homophobia and discrimination — was meant to help the district make improvements.

But after fierce backlash by community members that put the small school district under a national spotlight, the audit and its recommendations are being scrapped in favor of a new committee created by the district.

Amid the controversy, Sartell Superintendent Jeffery Ridlehoover is recommending the district of 4,160 students "amicably part ways" with Equity Alliance MN, the Woodbury-based group that conducted the audit, and instead create an "equity and student experience" committee made up of staff, parents, students and community members.

The school board last year had approved the contract with the alliance, an organization that says it has worked for more than 25 years to remove barriers in education so all students can succeed, following students' accounts of bullying, harassment and a toxic culture in school.

"This board, as well as members of the community, have struggled to make sense of the equity audit," Ridlehoover said Monday, saying people are frustrated that Equity Alliance MN has not responded to requests by parents to publicly share the questions in the student survey.

"These frustrations have clearly boiled over," Ridlehoover said. "This noise, as I call it, has distracted us from our most important work. Instead of us focusing on kids in our school, we've been caught in this quagmire that now needs to end."

The audit spurred the creation of a group called Kids Over Politics 748 , which states that its core belief is "character over race every time." U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer is also questioning the district's use of $80,000 in pandemic relief funds for the equity audit.

Last week, a Sartell family appeared on the nationally televised program "Fox and Friends" and said their student was told to hide the equity survey from their parents.

"On the gender identification question I got very confused and kind of nervous after a boy asked his mom after the teacher explained it that we cannot tell our parents anything," said Haylee Yasgar, a fourth-grader.

In the interview, Haylee's mother, Kelsey Yasgar, said equity audits promote division among students of different races.

"Equity is the mask that critical race theory hides behind, and we are not OK with those type of ideologies being taught to our children," she said.

In a letter to parents, Ridlehoover said the district would never impose a policy that prohibits students from talking to their parents about any part of their learning and said it was either a misunderstanding or, at most, a misrepresentation by staff in that students were asked to answer questions based on their own experiences and not the perceptions of classmates, friends or family members.

The student surveys were distributed via Zoom in December when students were in distance learning due to the pandemic. Equity Alliance MN presented the audit's results and recommendations at the July 21 board meeting.

Equity Alliance MN Executive Director Sebastian Witherspoon said the organization uses six categories to audit districts: systemic equity, the efficacy of programming, resources available for students, curriculum, student-centered leadership and inclusive communication.

"We look at everything. Equity is very broad. It's not narrow and it's not static," Witherspoon said Tuesday. "We take a holistic approach to identify what's happening intentionally or unintentionally that could be harming kids in the system relative to all those categories."

The report found that students are concerned about racism, homophobia and discrimination against students with disabilities, and it found shortcomings in activities that teach about race, culture and understanding. It also found that students of color were uncomfortable bringing concerns to leadership, and it recommended that the district implement additional mental health or anti-bullying programs.

"What's important to know is it's from an unbiased external lens," Witherspoon said. "That's why I think people hire organizations."

Witherspoon did not say Tuesday if the group would share the questions.

On Monday, Ridlehoover recommended that the district begin work immediately to create the new committee and ask Equity Alliance MN for a refund on services not yet provided. All six board members agreed with Ridlehoover's recommendations — and some took a harsher tone when speaking about the consultant.

"We got scammed by an organization that failed to do their work properly, legally and ethically," said board member Amanda Byrd.

Witherspoon said he appreciated the opportunity to work with Sartell.

"I really don't have a comment on how the board has perceived the results of the audit," he said. "I will tell you that equity is really, really challenging work.

"Our goal, ultimately, is to make sure that we're doing the very best to identify ways that systems can improve to help all students be successful," Witherspoon continued. "That is sometimes going to challenge the status quo and there often can be backlash. This work requires a lot of courage and we stand in that courage."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny