Gay policy splits city, school board
City of Ypsilanti refuses to accept police contract
By SHENA ABERCROMBIE
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
The Ypsilanti school board has put itself at odds with the city of Ypsilanti - and with itself - in the debate over gay rights.
In October, the board approved a contract for Ypsilanti police service, but without language - originally put in the contract by the city - that would have prohibited police from discriminating against anyone based on sexual orientation.
Now, the city won't sign off on the contract until the language is returned.
But in January, when the school board approved a similar contract for police services with the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department, it allowed language forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The missing phrase in the city contract has opened a debate, on and off the school board, about whether sexual orientation should be addressed in school district contracts and policies.
It also has opened the board to criticism over the inconsistency of approving the sheriff's contract with language that it wouldn't accept in the city contract.
The contracts allow the school district to have Ypsilanti police officers patrol schools located within the city, and sheriff's deputies patrol schools located in Ypsilanti Township.
But when it was time to renew the contract with city police last year, the city sent over a new contract that included the clause protecting homosexuals from discrimination.
Superintendent David Zuhlke said the term "sexual orientation" immediately raised questions for the school district attorney when he was asked to look at the city police contract.
"The reason it was taken out in the first place is upon advice of our attorney," said Zuhlke. "He indicated the sex orientation language was not necessary. And he advised that we stick strictly to the language of the law."
State law does not require that sexual orientation be included in anti-discrimination clauses found in legal contracts.
Last year, the Ypsilanti City Council approved a local anti-discrimination ordinance which included protection for homosexuals. The local ordinance does not take precedence over state or federal law, but created a protection in Ypsilanti that city officials wanted to extend to their contract with schools.
The disagreement over the language in the city contract turned the school district into another focus of the gay rights debate.
In October, school Trustee Karen Taylor, the only board member to vote against the city contract after the sexual orientation reference had been deleted, alerted Charles Duty of the missing language.
Duty is a local gay activist and an advocate of city law prohibiting discrimination against gays. Duty's appearance at school board meetings brought out members of COST, a group challenging the city non-discrimination ordinance. COST has circulated petitions forcing a referendum on the ordinance, and the city ordinance now has been suspended until that vote.
Members of the COST have urged the school district not to include sexual orientation in school policies or contracts.
Earlier this year, two school board members, Tom Reiber and Gigi Gooding, agreed and voted against a sheriff's contract, which included language on sexual orientation. But a majority of board members approved the contract.
Gooding has said legal concerns and religious beliefs led her to vote against the sheriff's contract.
But fellow Trustee Floyd Brumfield says personal philosophical opinions have no place at the board table. Brumfield says the sexual orientation reference has always been included in the sheriff's contract.
Brumfield speculated that if board members had been told that the district's attorney excised the language in the city contract, the confusion would not have arisen.
"At no time was it explained to the board," he said. "That's where the confusion came in. We approved the sheriff's contract, but not the city police contract. To me, it doesn't make sense."
Zuhlke said the city contract is not going to go back before the board in its original form.
"I've asked our attorney to look at some more general language that could include sex orientation - but not specifically - that would allow the district to comply with local, state and federal law," Zuhlke said.
He added that the sheriff's department contract will eventually include the same language change as the city police contract.
City Council member John Gawlas said he wonders about the school board's actions.
"I would be curious as to why the (school) administration is recommending more general language, since it approved the sheriff's department language," said Gawlas.
The status of the contract leaves city police officers in the schools without a contract for two years.
The police contract would have been retroactive for the 1996-97 school year, and would have expired at the end of the current school year.
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Last updated 3/2/98 by Jean Richter, richter@eecs.Berkeley.EDU