FARMINGTON — The Regional School Unit 9 board of directors Tuesday, Oct. 12, approved the addition of a set of books to Mt. Blue High School’s curriculum.

The books, four out of five of which were written by people of color, are “Kindred” by Octavia Butler, “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah, “Ground Zero” by Alan Gratz and “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo.

The books span a variety of genres, subject matters, points of view and themes featuring the experiences of African American slaves and a child imprisoned in America’s Japanese internment camps, among others.

The agenda item sparked ample discussion among directors for a variety of reasons regarding the board’s right to approve reading material and a potential lack of diversity in the selections.

Some directors raised concerns about the board needing to approve additions to the curriculum — or whether they had the right to, at all.

“I thought … that state law had changed that boards could no longer approve but only be notified as a way not to hamstring teachers and their choices,” Director Betsey Hyde said. “It would be great for our policy committee to take a look and figure that out.”

“I’m mindful of one of our ethical principles which is not to run the schools but see that they are well run,” Director Doug Dunlap said. “I don’t see a need for books to be reviewed by the full board.”

Under “duties of school boards,” Maine law states “(the board) shall adopt a policy governing the selection of educational materials and may approve educational materials.”

Superintendent Chris Elkington described Mt. Blue’s policy on “instructional and library-media materials selection” as “not really clear.”

The policy states that “while the board retains its authority to approve the selection of instructional materials, it recognizes the educational expertise of its professional staff and … delegates responsibility for the selection of instructional materials and library-media resources to the professionally-trained personnel employed by the school system, subject to the criteria and procedures for selection and the board’s policy on challenged materials …”

The policy does not specifically and explicitly require the board to approve new educational materials before they can be incorporated in schools.

However, the beginning of the policy does state that the board is “legally responsible for all matters relating to operations of the schools, including the provision of instructional materials and maintenance of library-media resources that support the school system’s curriculum.”

Due to this lack of clarity, Elkington said he and Chairwoman Carol Coles decided this set of reading materials “would probably be good to go before the board to review … especially in these troubled times.”

In an interview following the meeting, Elkington said that they felt these specific books should be reviewed by the board because “we were bringing five selections, which a majority of them were from recent immigrants … in a recent immigrant population.”

“This was a diverse (choice) and I just wanted to make sure that the board understood that,” he said.

However, Elkington clarified that “it wasn’t a concern about the writers or the content.”

This was the first time the board had approved new curriculum since September 2017, according to Director of Curriculum Laura Columbia.

Other directors agreed that the board does not need to review this kind of new curriculum and that the Educational Policy Committee should rework this policy. Elkington supported the suggestion.

Other concerns were raised about ensuring that new curriculum includes diversity on all fronts.

“How are we also ensuring viewpoint diversity in these types of things as well?” Director Kirk Doyle asked.

In an interview following the meeting, Doyle said that “if all five of those authors had the same worldview, that we want to make sure that we’re representing a different perspective. Even if their experiences were all diverse, but then resulted in a similar worldview.”

Doyle clarified that by “worldview,” he meant “religious affiliation, political affiliation, sexual identity, any type of worldview that might impact the way that they look at all the things that impact us.”

“These five books all describe lives of people that we don’t see very much around here. I think viewpoint diversity, you’re looking at it,” Director J. Wayne Kinney said during the meeting.

Elkington also added that the last district he worked for had conducted “an audit of what we had for materials and books and (found) like 89.6% are by a bunch of white, Anglo-Saxon men.”

“Obviously you know as well as I do that writing and reading was a privilege for very few, years ago,” he said.

“It would be interesting to put a process together and look at diversity in that way,” Elkington said. “I think we could look at how we can make an effort to see what we have and assist in how we can support the collection.”

During the meeting, Doyle also raised concerns about the board’s culpability for new material. He referenced an Ohio school board that approved “a book that was lambasted with concerns from parents.”

He didn’t specify which board. However, The Akron Beacon Journal reports that a school board in Hudson City School District, outside of Akron, Ohio, has faced immense backlash and the national spotlight after parents raised concerns about a book called “642 Things to Write About” with “inappropriate writing prompts” that was used in a college credit course for high school seniors.

“How do we ensure a similar reaction won’t happen?” Doyle asked.

Columbia explained that there is an extensive process spanning approval at multiple levels before new curriculum material for the high school and middle school is presented to the board.

This process starts with a selection by specific teachers and is reviewed by department heads, the principal, Columbia, and then the Educational Policy Committee.

Throughout the process, books are reviewed to ensure that they are “educational,” “recommended to the right age group” and “fit (the district’s) curriculum (and) vision of what narratives and topics to expose students to,” Columbia told the board.

The board unanimously approved the additions to the curriculum.

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