Decisions this big deserve a vote in an open meeting

There were several things wrong with a vote by the Wilson County Board of Education to ban a book from schools’ freshman reading list during a regular meeting about a week ago.
May 14, 2014

There were several things wrong with a vote by the Wilson County Board of Education to ban a book from schools’ freshman reading list during a regular meeting about a week ago. 

First, the board banned the book, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” in a 3-1 vote on May 5. That action, in and of itself, was both a slap in the face of a committee comprised of a number of teachers, as well as administrators, who get together to create the reading lists. 

Second, interim Director of Schools Mary Ann Sparks instructed school administrators to collect copies of the book from students. It appears, however, Sparks is not to blame in this case. She was merely following orders from the board. 

Sparks defended the book, as well as other literary works. 

“Through the years, different books have come up as being offensive to some, or maybe even the majority, and some of those books are now classics. I can’t tell you that I approve of them, but I will say that the option to read them, I feel as an educator should be there,” said Sparks during the May 5 meeting.

Third, Sparks advised school administrators Thursday to put the book back on the reading list and return copies to students. Again, Sparks was following orders, this time from county attorney Mike Jennings, who’s concerned the board may have violated a policy with the vote. 

The policy said, “The board will seek to provide a wide range of instructional materials on all levels of difficulty, with diversity of appeal and the presentation of different points of view and will provide procedures for review and reconsideration of allegedly inappropriate instructional materials.”

The policy further said, “The board supports principles of intellectual freedom inherent in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and expressed in the Library Bill of Rights of the American Library Association. 

“Because opinions differ, there may be questions concerning some instructional and library materials despite the quality of the selection process. If a complaint is made, it should be made to the director of schools or the appropriate instructional supervisor.”

But possibly the most significant problem with this scenario came when the decision was made to give the students their books back without a meeting, open deliberation or a vote. 

Elisha Hodge, open records counsel with the state comptroller’s office, said the board may be in violation of the state Open Meetings Act based on information she received Friday. 

“To the extent that the board made a decision in a public meeting, they have to [reverse] that in an adequately noticed public meeting,” Hodge said. “I think that if the court were to look at the official action of the board, it would say the decision to take the book off the required reading list still stands.”

Hopefully some sort of resolution can be reached when the board meets again June 2. With an issue this significant, the public shouldn’t have to wait that long. There are just too many unanswered questions. 

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