PALMER — The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District got more than 300 applicants for a new library committee that will review dozens of challenged books in Alaska’s second-largest school district.
But instead of using a random lottery selection, as district officials announced last month, each member of the seven-member Mat-Su school board will choose one person to help review a list of at least 56 volumes. The list includes decades-old books by prominent authors including Judy Blume, Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut.
Late in a nearly six-hour meeting Wednesday night, the school board in a 6-1 vote approved the new selection policy.
The committee will serve for one year and have 13 members, with remaining seats held by two district staffers; two school board members; and two librarians.
The roughly 19,000-student school district, in a borough widely viewed as a conservative stronghold, is conducting a broader review of its library collections and policies, as well as its book fair procedures, in response to community concerns. The district has already removed a number of books, but officials have refused to say which ones or how many.
The new library committee replaces a policy in place since 2005 in which challenged books are first reviewed at the school library level. Earlier this year, an ad hoc committee composed of library staff, district employees, school board members and community members recommended updating procedures after community members started bringing concerns directly to the school board.
District administrators have said the committee’s decisions will be based on a state statute that makes it illegal for adults to distribute “indecent materials” to minors.
Kendal Kruse, one of two school board members who proposed the committee selection process, said there are “a lot of highly educated people in this community” that will be able to collaborate on a review process intended to protect district employees, including librarians, from criminal charges.
“You’re going through the book and looking at the whole entirety of the book, just like the law says to do,” Kruse said.
Ted Swanson, the only member to vote against the committee selection process, said it wasn’t random enough.
“I think those people may not be as objective as we’d like,” he said. “I think that we risk limiting free speech in our district and the freedom of ideas, and I think it’s government overreach.”
The switch from a lottery to board member selections also drew more criticism than support from members of the public Wednesday night.
Joshua Holbrook accused the board of switching up the process after seeing how many different kinds of people applied to serve on the committee.
“You guys got grouchy about that and decided that instead of doing this lottery system that you would jury-rig it by handpicking your representatives. This is fundamentally undemocratic. It is craven and you should be ashamed of yourselves,” Holbrook said. “But the real scandal here is that you’re aiming to ban books at all.”
Several parents, including Melissa Wilkins, said a board selection process better represents the community than a lottery would. Wilkins, who has three children in the district, said the process underway is not book banning but a selection of age-appropriate texts.
“Parents cannot oversee their children in school libraries, and we need to know there will be policy to protect children from exposure to pornography and sexually explicit content,” she said.
The district last updated the challenged books list in early May. A spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a question Thursday about any more recent additions.
The meeting was crowded with teachers in red shirts who say they are prepared to strike this fall if a contract impasse with the district continues.