Swampscott Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Post Budget Hit Spurs Debate
Swampscott Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Post Budget Hit Spurs Debate

Swampscott Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Post Budget Hit Spurs Debate

SWAMPSCOTT, MA — A proposed new Swampscott Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion budget line that was reduced from $85,000 to $6,000 in funding from 2022 to the proposed 2024 budget spurred a Select Board discussion about re-prioritizing the efforts that were a focal point of the Board in recent years.

Select Board member Katie Phelan questioned the decrease as part of the budget review Tuesday night and was told the 2022 funding was intended for a full-time director, that a reduced $10,000 line item in 2023 intended for a consultant to determine the town’s needs in diversity, equity and inclusion was never spent, and the $6,000 proposed for 2024 will be to go toward a stipend for a current Swampscott town staff member to go through DEI certificate training.

“When the voices were the loudest we all rallied behind it,” Phelan said. “Now that things have quieted down (the priority level is) maybe not in the direction that we necessarily want to be going in.

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“We should bring it back in the direction that we want it to go in.”

Swampscott Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald admitted the budgeting is “a step back” and said that his work with stakeholders around the initiative indicated that the town needs to build a “culture that is an environment for success” before hiring a full-time director.

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“We don’t have that right now,” he said. “I just want to be candid. We have to build that. It takes time and it takes effort. Yes, we’re doing things that are building a more inclusive workforce. We’re constantly focused on this. But we’ve got to build more of that environment for success.

“If there is one thing I’ve learned is that we’ve got to take this incrementally.”

Three years after some of the protests in town that helped spur the passionate DEI discussions, Select Board member Peter Spellios joined Phelan in pressing for more urgency.

“I believe this to be a miss,” said Spellios, who credited Phelan for identifying the disconnect. “Hard stop. Period. I believe it’s a major step backward from the commitment that we made at a point in time when we were engaging in a lot of very critical, difficult conversations. And I remain steadfastly critical of the fact that those conversations did not continue.

“I believe the budget is reflecting now in hard ink a step back from that commitment.”

Spellios allowed that Fitzgerald has made significant efforts to try to improve the diverse hiring practices of the town — Fitzgerald was a leading proponent of the oft-contentious move of police and fire hiring out of civil service in recent years — but added: “I don’t know that a stipended employee with a full stack of work getting DEI training is ever what we envisioned to be helping us look soup to nuts on personnel, policies and programming in our town to see we’ve missed and where opportunities are.

“We’re several years later and we’ve done none of that.”

Fitzgerald largely agreed with the Board’s sentiments and said the funding will be revisited, but indicated that budgeting for a new DEI director position may be a tough sell at a time when the town is asking departments to make cuts to meet the constraints of raising spending by 2.65 percent or less for 2024.

“I do appreciate the Board’s support for these efforts,” he said. “They’re the most difficult responsibilities that we have. They are the most difficult conversations that we have to have. There is no easy way to deal with this.

“We will face opposition. We will face folks that, frankly, do not believe that this should be a priority. And, I’m sorry to say, that this budget, frankly, reflects that.”

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(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at Scott.Souza@Patch.com. Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)

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