Skip to main Content

After hours of public testimony on literary classics pulled from English classes, Mat-Su School Board postpones reconsideration

PALMER — The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board on Wednesday night heard three hours of testimony on a proposal to rescind last month’s vote to pull five literary classics from upper-level English courses.

Then they ended the meeting without coming to a decision — or even talking about it.

The board is scheduled to take up the issue again May 20. Public testimony is closed, district officials say. The board will discuss the motion to rescind and then vote.

The original decision, made in a 5-2 vote on April 22, removed from elective English reading lists “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald; “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison; “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller; “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou; and “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.

The board also voted to remove The New York Times’ The Learning Network as a teaching resource; journalism students can still use the newspaper. The decision barred elective English teachers from using the five works but didn’t remove them from libraries.

The vote triggered a national backlash — stories appeared in The Washington Post, on NBC and other outlets — and generated a wave of support for the books.

Wednesday night’s meeting was conducted via livestream instead of in person due to COVID-19 concerns. Nearly 80 people signed up to testify by phone. More than 400 viewed the meeting remotely at certain times.

Public comment finished a few minutes before 10 p.m. The board then had to vote whether to continue past that late time, a procedural step that usually results in going ahead with the meeting.

Instead, the board voted 4-3 to end it.

Board president Tom Bergey, who runs a Matanuska Valley farm, was working Thursday morning and couldn’t immediately return a call for comment.

The decision to delay a vote drew immediate fire on social media.

“I have never seen such a display of cowardice from an elected body," Palmer City Council member Sabrena Combs, an opponent of last month’s decision, posted on Facebook minutes later.

School board member Kelsey Trimmer, who voted to keep going, added his own comment: “Unbelievable.”

Of the roughly 60 people who ended up providing testimony, about 50 spoke in favor of rescinding the vote. Many urged the board to allow students to read difficult books with the help of a teacher rather than shielding them from real-world issues. Parents can opt out of any books they’re not comfortable with, several said.

Dozens of parents and community members, as well as teachers and administrators, vetted the English elective reading materials through a standard curriculum review process. They labeled the five books as “controversial” for reasons including sexual situations, rape and incest, violence, racism and language, but still recommended them as teaching materials.

The board’s action superseded that process, Wasilla resident Cecil Ellsworth said.

“Most of this board chose to impose some personal moral code over the expressed wishes of the parents they represent," Ellsworth said.

Deline Ault, who founded a Facebook reading group for the five books, on Wednesday thanked the board members in Tlingit for their service, then condemned their lack of humility. Ault swore on the grave of her great-great aunt, Alaska Native civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich, “to do everything in my power to unseat you in your next election if you do not vote to rescind.”

Several attorneys testified that the board apparently violated the Open Meetings Act with last month’s vote on an amendment made during the meeting without public notice.

Rachel Gernat, a former Palmer prosecutor, told the board that Alaska’s rate of rape and sexual assault is the highest in the nation and the state’s rate of child rape is six times higher than the national average but stigma continues to keep victims from reporting.

One of the books, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” includes just a half-page reference to Angelou’s first-person account of her rape as a child and a decade “under darkness” believing it was her fault, said Gernat, whose children go to high school in the district.

“By banning these books, the board is encouraging the stigma surrounding rape and sexual abuse to continue and to consider it shameful to be victimized,” she said.

A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union said the First Amendment doesn’t allow for the removal of books simply because they’re controversial.

“Bending to the will of any number of vocal parents could lead to a narrower and narrower list of books for students to read on a more and more homogeneous list of topics,” said ACLU Alaska policy director Triada Stampas.

About 10 people spoke against rescinding, with some saying the books were inappropriate for teens or victims of abuse. Former borough assembly candidate Brian Endle called it “disgusting” that Angelou’s work was on a high-school reading list. Several asked the district to develop standards for what one called “explicit” books.

Kevin McCabe, a Big Lake Republican running for state House, labeled the situation “fake news report, faux outrage” and wondered who called the national media.

“It seems to have taken on a life of its own because of the whole book ban moniker that was given to it,” McCabe said.

Wasilla’s Ron Johnson said it should be possible to present ideas in a way that’s “not offensive to mainstream America” and urged the board to bring school curricula in line with the standards of the community.

“We are normally considered a fairly conservative area of the state of Alaska,” Johnson said. “The subjects may be controversial but I think the worst thing about it was the way the material was presented.”

Board members Bergey, Trimmer and Sarah Welton voted to continue the meeting. Voting in favor of adjournment were Ole Larson, Jim Hart, Ryan Ponder and Jeff Taylor.

Welton and Trimmer were “no” votes on the book-removal vote; Welton requested the motion to rescind.

Bergey, Hart, Larson, Ponder and Taylor voted last month to remove the books.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]