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"Why is that?" the teacher asks sardonically. In a more earnest tone, the teacher charges: "If you're facing racist practices, why not try to get in through the back door?"
For black teachers that door usually is labeled "American Indian" or "Hispanic" -- though one black teacher, born of a black parent and a white parent, did change her ethnicity from black to white.
An oddity about the one-time-only ethnicity-change policy in Miami-Dade County is that no other school district of comparable size has a similar one in place. Officials from the nation's only three urban school districts larger than Miami-Dade's (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago), from the fifth largest (Broward County), and from three other large, urban, Southern systems (Atlanta, Houston, and Palm Beach County) have responded to questions about teachers changing their ethnic spots with a collective, "Huh?"
In Broward it was, "What?!" Theresa Uraga, an assistant in the personnel office of Broward County Public Schools, had a hard time not sounding flabbergasted when she heard that nearly 100 people hopscotched ethnicities within the past year in Miami-Dade County. Her boss, director of administrative procedures Sarah Mowery, reports that her school district has no similar policy in place.
Up the road in Palm Beach County, Melinda Wong, director of personnel, was not blind-sided by the question. She says that about ten school employees per year will change their ethnicity, usually citing an error. She points out that her district has nothing comparable to Miami-Dade's controlled-staffing mandate.
"I don't have any experience with that," responds Marvin Jacobs, director of management and information services for the New York City Board of Education. "My feeling is that, the way things work here, there'd be a change form. I've never done it, but there's a form here for anything." Still if such a form or policy exists in the Big Apple, he's never heard of it.
Carlos Ponce, director of human resources for the Chicago Public Schools, says his district doesn't have that kind of policy either. If someone did want to switch ethnicities, Ponce says, "We'd probably take it on a case-by-case basis. I'd probably end up calling the feds, the Bureau of Civil Service, the Civil Rights Office, to make sure I covered my bases."
In the City of Angels Sheldon Erlich, spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, says his district "makes an effort to provide for diversity among school staffs." Los Angeles doesn't face the same controlled-staffing court order as Miami-Dade. This obviates the biggest incentive to change ethnicity, but even so, Erlich isn't sure that Los Angeles schools would easily allow even the one-time change permitted in Miami-Dade.
"One of our attorneys told me that we'd be reluctant to allow a change unless there was some compelling reason to do it," Erlich says. "When they're hired and filling out that paperwork, they're really signing off under penalty of perjury that [the information given] is true. To say that one day you're Hispanic, and another day you're something else, I don't think that would generally be allowed."
Atlanta Public Schools has no ethnicity-change procedure. "That's kind of out of left field," says Sidney Camp, personnel director.
Houston, do we have a problem? "It's been years since we've had anyone submit an ethnicity change," says Houston Independent School District spokeswoman Lisa Bunse. "We're not under any staffing mandates."
The brass at Miami-Dade County Public Schools knows they have a policy, but they can't remember when or how it got started. Between them deputy superintendent of schools Henry C. Fraind and school board attorney Phyllis Douglas have nearly 60 years of experience in the district. As far back as they can remember, M-DCPS employees have had the option of changing their ethnicity one time.
In a morning meeting in Fraind's office, Douglas muses that the policy must have existed even before the 1969 and 1970 desegregation orders. (Douglas, who is retiring June 30, joined the school system in 1971.) "It's an unwritten policy," she notes.
Fraind joined up as a teacher in 1969, and he clearly remembers teachers talking about the policy, or tradition, in the Seventies. "The talk was always there in the teachers' lounge, 'If you want to get ahead in the system, become Spanish, Henry,'" he says. "Look what happened: I never did it. I remained white. But that's what I used to hear. It wasn't about blacks, it was, 'Start thinking Hispanic, because the Hispanics are going to take over.' That's exactly what they used to say in the lounge, and I got out of that lounge very quickly, because once you get in the teachers' lounge, that's where all the rumors begin and you get in trouble with the principal," he adds with a snicker.
Douglas recalls that the ethnicity-change issue has worked its way to her office on a few occasions -- when people have wanted to change a second time. "We figured one time was enough," she says. "You don't go around saying, 'Well, gee, I want to get in touch with my Hispanic roots today, and tomorrow I want to get in touch with my African-American roots.' I think once is reasonable, and more than that is not."