Book discussions continue at Brandywine school board meeting

Published 11:00 am Tuesday, September 12, 2023

NILES — Students’ access to sexually explicit books and a book donation from a national non-profit organization dedicated to spreading diverse literature were the main topics of conversation at Monday’s Brandywine Board of Education meeting. 

Board members appear closer to adopting a policy requiring parents to review books before giving approval for middle and high school students to access sexually explicit books in the school library. The topic has been discussed at the committee and board level and could be voted on at the Sept. 25 meeting. 

Board President Thomas Payne said the district’s law firm, Thrun Law of Lansing, suggested a couple of minor corrections as well as broadening the policy to include any sexually explicit books that teachers may use in the classroom outside of the library. 

“They commended the board for their hard work threading the needle of a complex situation,” he said.  

The proposed new policy was also supported by a number of people in the audience. They spoke out against allowing pornographic books in the school library as well as the district keeping books deemed unacceptable. Overall, about the same number of people spoke in support of the board’s actions as questioned them. 

Carla Johnson was one of those speaking. She noted that Michigan state law governs the operation of school libraries and it is the school board and not teachers who may accept or not accept book donations. 

“This board should discard unfit donated books,” she said. “If parents want their kids to access such books, they can provide these reading materials in their own homes.” 

Board members as well as people in the audience continued to debate the value of books which might use explicit language to address important themes.  

Board member Jessica Crouch said that parents should be told about both the language and the themes when asked to approve allowing their child to read a book. On the other hand, board member Michelanne McCombs said books “can clearly get a point across without using raunchy words.” 

With the second item, board members expressed concerns about how a $5,000 grant from an organization called “We Need Diverse Books” was obtained and the overall process of grant applications. A majority of board members appeared ready to ask for an investigation into how the grant was obtained but are waiting to hear how much it might cost. 

The book donation grant concern was raised by Payne.  He questioned whether how the grant was obtained and whether the proper procedures were followed. He outlined the timeline of how teachers submitted the grant just two weeks after the board halted the purchase of any sexually explicit books on Feb. 13. 

Superintendent Travis Walker said he “was not aware that he was aware” of the grant application because teachers told him verbally about it in February and it wasn’t in an email he could go back to see. He said he has a different view of the board policy regarding getting grants and believes it applies to federal grants and not private grants. 

Payne said he’s concerned not only that he doesn’t think board policy was followed and that the board was not aware of the grant application until news of the $5,000 award came out in August but that he thinks teachers made false statements in applying for the grant. 

“They claimed that the four new board members wanted to make changes without any assessment of the issues,” he said. “That’s false, that’s why we established committees. They also said we had attempted to ban books. We did not ban or eliminate any books.” 

“In my opinion, they circumvented the board’s February action,” he added. “When I talked to the district attorney, he was absolutely frustrated that they did it under false pretenses and that the district could be legally liable for them doing it under false pretenses.” 

Payne recommended that the board have the attorney do an investigation and bring a report to the board’s Sept. 25 meeting. Board members balked at approving the investigation without knowing the cost and Payne said he would get an estimate and possibly call a special meeting to act on the request. 

Walker said the district has received some books with the grant funds and he has halted putting them on the library shelves as well as getting any more.  

While some board members said it would be burdensome to require the superintendent and board approve all grants, others said the board has ultimate responsibility for vetting the materials received. Board Secretary Angela Seastrom noted that it is a larger issue that goes beyond these books to the board’s responsibilities to oversee the district. 

Abilyn Janke, one of the teachers who applied for the grant, also spoke. 

“I want to make it clear that we’ve been following this process for years,” she said. “A small group of us saw an opportunity to get books into the hands of the kids. They are all about diversity, they are not sexually explicit. I want them to have books they can connect to.”