GUEST COMMENTARY: School board’s book debate more about agendas than students

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Erin Whitesitt

Like many parents whose youth have attended, currently attend, or will soon attend Mingus Union High School, I have witnessed the MUHS Board’s majority advancement of a conservative agenda with alarm.

Though legislative changes are in the works, state law currently specifies school board candidates must appear on ballots without partisan designation. The logic is simple: as with other nonpartisan positions, board members’ scope of responsibility is narrow and their obligation is to those they serve, not their churches or political parties.

At least, that is how it is supposed to be.

There were warning signs. Prior to the last election, activists promoted two candidates as “conservative” choices. This was disturbing, given Mingus is the only public high school within 15 miles, serves families of all political and religious stripes, and the manifest function of a public school is to advance citizens’ knowledge and civic responsibility. Parents who wish to limit their children’s learning to their religious or political values can choose to send their children to a private or charter school, or take advantage of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account.

I and others have spoken about these issues at board meetings. We have begged the Board to remember their obligation is to all youth and families, not just those who share their beliefs. We have implored them to consider that families who are not conservative or religious lack other local options for public schooling.

Many have written, questioning why a board member rejected a textbook on the grounds it was “Marxist” without providing examples to support their claim. I have personally spoken in a board meeting about my frustration that not one of my teenagers could tell me who Emmett Till was or why his death represents a notable moment in American history.

And so we find ourselves in the middle of a culture war writ small – over library books, of all things.

This came as no surprise to anyone who paid attention while the majority of the board crept steadily to the right. Reassurances that the issue was merely the need to “establish a policy” were disingenuous from the start, as one board member’s October request to remove queer books has demonstrated. Nationwide, nearly half of all books challenged are written by LGBT+ people or deal with LGBT+ issues. This is not just about keeping graphic material out of the hands of children (the United States Supreme Court defined obscenity decades ago), but about queer youth, whom all members of the board took an oath of office to support.

As the most graphic pages from the most extreme examples began circulating on social media, I asked my Mingus student and my Mingus alum if they’d heard of the books or were familiar with their content. They hadn’t, and they weren’t. I asked if they knew whether the books were in the library. They didn’t. I asked whether they would be interested in viewing the books, or wanted them removed from the library. Their answer: not really.

“Mom,” one pointed out, “nobody even goes to the Mingus library.” The other shrugged in agreement.

As a parent and an educator, this statement put the issue into stark relief. While conservative board members bluster about titles they want removed from the library, they have lost sight of what’s missing from it: The students they swore to serve and claim they want to protect.

Last Saturday, I handed a recall petition for a board member to a septuagenarian former school librarian, explaining a recall would allow voters to decide whether the board member should remain in their position now that they’ve seen their position on textbooks and library materials.

“Say less,” she said, “Where do I sign?”

Registered voters residing within the MUHS district can sign a recall petition for MUHS Board member Misty Cox in Old Town Cottonwood on Saturday, Feb. 3, from 1-4 p.m.

Erin Whitesitt is an assistant teaching professor at Northern Arizona University, mother of three and a resident of the Verde Village.


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