Utah schools are bleeding teenagers, and state officials seem unable to deal with that and other problems plaguing ethnic minorities, a series of advocates told a legislative committee this week.

The dropout rate was just one issue discussed in a three-hour meeting Wednesday of the Minority Affairs Subcommittee, an almost-all-white group of state lawmakers.

Utah's ethnic communities are grappling with a range of troubles: The Utah Labor Division's Sherrie Hayashi said her office sees thousands of cases of employment and housing discrimination each year. That and the dropout rate are prime indicators of the government's inability to gather data and use it to address inequities, said the directors of Utah's ethnic-affairs offices.

"Each school district has a different definition of a dropout, so there's no way of tracking" students, said Tony Yapias, state director of Hispanic Affairs. So dropout reports vary, showing anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent of Latino, Pacific Islander and American Indian students leaving school long before graduation.

For better tracking, perhaps all children could be given a student identification number, suggested Edith Mitko, director of the state Office of Asian Affairs. But Sen. James Evans, chairman of the Minority Affairs Subcommittee, said he'd heard such a numbering system would cost $25,000 or $250,000; he wasn't sure which.

These problems have festered over the years, the advocates said, because top state officials don't really have to listen to the ethnic advisory boards. The members' communication is filtered through staff liaisons. And the ethnic-office directors are below cabinet level, so they have no power to hold higher-ups accountable.

The Hispanic Advisory Council, for example, sent a letter to state Superintendent of Schools Steve Laing and never received a response, said Yvette Diaz, the council's former chairwoman.

"It would really go a long way if the offices and the councils reported directly to the governor," Diaz said. "The governor needs to be engaged." The Hispanic, Black, Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs offices have one director and one secretary each, but they're housed away from the Capitol, on the fifth floor of a building at 300 S. State. That makes it even harder for their communities' voices to be heard inside the governor's office. "To do their job," Diaz said, "they need to have teeth."

Inside the offices, "there's some type of crisis all the time," Yapias added. He takes near-constant calls from people needing help to cope with all kinds of discrimination. "We have 250,000 (Latinos), and there are only three of us," and the new position of Hispanic Affairs coordinator has yet to be filled.

The handful of legislators at Wednesday's subcommittee meeting listened also to reports from white state officials. They talked about "underserved populations" and "special-needs entities," and acknowledged that more money and effort are needed in those areas. Amid the jargon and basic questions from the lawmakers, former Hispanic Affairs director Leticia Medina looked at other Latinos in the audience and rolled her eyes slightly.

Finally, it was Luz Robles' turn to speak to the subcommittee. The Hispanic Advisory Council member and advocate for immigrant battered women got right to the point.

"It is very difficult to get that door opened to state agencies," Robles said. "We need accountability. We need to make sure somebody is getting policies in place that reflect our population."

While she spoke, Reps. Chad Bennion, R-Murray, and Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, whispered to each other. They turned their attention back to the speakers' table as two men reiterated Robles' and Diaz's points. The ethnic offices "need to have more bite to them," said Rod Stallworth, chairman of the Black Advisory Council. The directors are essentially "hamstrung."

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"Government is by the people and for the people. What are we? We are people," added Nadeem Ahmed, a Pakistani member of the Asian Advisory Council. All the ethnic offices and their councils have the authority to do is meet and talk, he said. They may need restructuring in order to work more closely with top officials, and bring about real progress in the state.

Evans said that as the subcommittee hears more testimony, it will be "in a better position" to consider such reorganization.

At the end of the meeting, Hutchings did seem to understand the advocates' message.

"You've got a good point," he said, "about (an advisory council) being a feel-good thing but it doesn't really go anywhere."


E-mail: durbani@desnews.com