Wisconsin district closes door on book selection

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Schools say they want parental input, but closes the door on process

APPLETON, Wis. – The Appleton school board has come under fire after allegedly violating state open meetings laws when a committee it appointed chose the novels to include in the 9th grade reading curriculum without consulting the public.

Sitting-at-tableOne local taxpayer said the district’s actions not only violated the law, but illustrated a general arrogance on the part of local educators who believe they know better than citizens what children should be reading.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) filed a complaint last Monday on behalf of district taxpayer John Krueger to the state attorney general and the Outagamie County district attorney.

The complaint alleges a special committee created by the Appleton school board violated Wisconsin open meetings laws when it met behind closed doors in 2011 and 2012 to determine the 9th grade reading curriculum.

Over a period of six months, the special committee, comprised of teachers and district administrators, reviewed a list of over 90 potential novels to include in the reading curriculum. Since none of the committee’s meetings were open to the public, questions arose about how certain books were chosen over others.

Krueger, whose daughter attends a school in the district, objected to the closed door selection process.

In an email to Appleton Superintendent Lee Allinger, Krueger requested the committee meetings be held in public “in the interest of openness, fairness, and public service.”

Allinger denied the request, stating only that he did not agree that “a teacher work committee of this nature falls under the Wisconsin Open Meetings law requirements.”

Playing their game

In the fall of 2010, Krueger read in the local newspaper that a parent was challenging a book that was being used in the 9th grade communication arts curriculum.

The book was the young adult novel “The Body of Christopher Creed.” Parents had received a notice from the school district saying the book had been controversial and their children could be excused from reading it.

Krueger did not initially pay much attention to the parent’s objection.

It wasn’t until “about two weeks later, I was reading the paper and it said they had this district-wide review committee that had decided 13-0 that the book was appropriate,” Krueger told EAGnews. “And for whatever reason, I cannot explain it, but that really struck me.

“How do you come to a 13-0 vote on something the school district has acknowledged is controversial? Shouldn’t it have been more like 8-5 or 9-4? Shouldn’t somebody have agreed with the parent that there was something questionable here?

“It set me off, ‘I said I’m going to call down there because this sounds like a process that was not fair.’”

Krueger appealed the board’s decision about the book, but was denied.

“They’re portraying it like I’m advocating for censorship. … This is not about censorship. This is about the original selection process. How is this book even selected? Who said it was appropriate? Why did they say it was appropriate?”

Krueger submitted an open records request with the district, requesting information about how each book in the curriculum was selected and reviewed.

“They came back and they had not a single scrap of paper to say that there was any evidence of a review done ever when this book was adopted,” said Krueger.

By 2011, Krueger and a group of concerned citizens and parents approached the Appleton school board with the idea of creating an alternative 9th grade communication arts curriculum.

According to board minutes, “A request was received for an optional alternative Communication Arts (CA) 1 course that would follow the same curriculum but would use instructional materials that
are at the 9th grade reading level, contain no profanities or obscenities, and contain no sexualized content.”

The board and superintendent were open to the idea, and created a 17-member committee tasked not only with considering this alternative course, but upgrading the whole 9th grade communication arts curriculum, in part to prepare for national Common Core language arts standards.

Using a decision-making process hidden from the public, “the committee reviewed 93 titles and chose 24 (books) to present to AASD staff, students, parents, and residents for feedback,” according to board minutes.

But there were so few copies of each book and such a short review period – 30 days – that few people were able to meaningfully comment.

“They were playing a game,” Krueger said.

Keeping the public in the dark

Krueger requested multiple times to attend the committee meetings, citing Wisconsin’s open meetings laws.

The superintendent refused to make the meetings public, offering only a “conclusionary allegation that [the committee]was a ‘teacher committee,’ perhaps believing its composition dictated its classification,” according to the complaint.

Tom Kamenick, associate counsel and open government specialist at WILL, said that claim is misconstrued.

“State statutes give school boards the authority to select textbooks and approve curricula for their courses,” Kamenick said in a press release. “When a school board delegates that authority to another body, the open meetings laws still apply.”

“Not only did this committee conduct closed-door meetings contrary to state law, but no minutes were kept of its discussions or how the members voted,” according to Krueger. “The inability to attend meetings and the lack of records means the public will never know how the committee came to its conclusions or whether the process it used was fair and unbiased. This is a serious violation of the public trust.”

The school district’s chief academic officer told the Associated Press the committee needed to meet privately to facilitate candid discussion.

But Krueger said “secrecy promotes incompetence and sloppy work.” He also believed the district has other motives for keeping the meetings closed.

“[There] is an attitude that you find throughout the school system that they are the professionals, they know what to do, they know what’s best, and they will tolerate parents, but otherwise they just want to do their own thing,” Krueger said. “That’s part of it. I do believe, myself, that the other part of it is that there are several teachers that have their own world view and they want the literature selected that reinforces that world view.

“What is the argument against open meetings? Let me hear it. Are you saying it would be too much to schedule? There’s no extra burden being placed on the school district. They’re already scheduling these meetings weeks in advance. They know the time, location, all that kind of stuff. They give a notice to the public and have a few extra chairs, that’s not a burden. What else would be the burden?”

According to WILL, if neither the Attorney General nor the Outagamie County District Attorney file a lawsuit within 20 days, state statutes give citizens the right to act as “private attorney generals” and bring open meetings lawsuits on behalf of the people of the state.

Krueger is hopeful that a lawsuit will set precedent for other school districts.

“I’m hopeful that we’re going to win and that it’s going to open up the barricades for other people and it’s going to make a big long-term difference. I really believe that.”

By Ashleigh Costello at EAGnews.org

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