The process by which instructional materials and textbooks can be reviewed when there is a concern about their content became the topic of debate at last week’s Giles County Board of Education meeting.
Board members discussed at length the relevant policy to determine if they could or should vote to revisit the school system’s state-approved English Language Arts curriculum.
In his comments at last month’s work session, School Board member Jim Stewart brought up concerns he had with the Amplify sixth grade reading material, finding certain selections to contain what he felt were vulgar or inappropriate content. In the time between the work session and the most recent board meeting, Stewart filed a complaint to Director of Schools Vickie Beard about the county’s ELA curriculum, asking for it to be reviewed entirely. Stewart’s filing was rejected with a letter from Beard stating his complaint was too vague and failed to identify specifically what material Stewart wants to be reviewed.
Board Chairman Knox Vanderpool opened discussion by reading Board policy 4.403 Reconsideration of Instructional Materials and Textbooks. The policy outlines a seven-step procedure through which concerns regarding instructional materials may be reviewed by the school system.
The policy instructs the complainant to submit a formal Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials, which is then reviewed by a committee of stakeholders. If the result of this review is unsatisfactory to the complainant, they may make an appeal to the school board.
In the time between meetings, the school board and central office consulted with the district’s counsel Tim Underwood to verify the process by which an existing curriculum might be reconsidered.
“In order to address a complaint like this, we need to know what the complaints are. And those complaints need to be vetted and reviewed to actually get to a position to even reconsider. As of right now we are not at that spot,” Vanderpool said.
Stewart countered, saying, “We as a board have this power, we have this authority, that if we decide to revisit the curriculum, we can choose to revisit this curriculum.”
Stewart then made a motion that the board “revisit the curriculum, and that we begin to go through the process of looking at the problem areas and perhaps trying to find a suitable alternative.”
Ultimately the board members returned to the text of the policy which did not expressly give them the authority to review or revoke curriculum.
“If we follow policy, we need to have a substantial, adequate, formal complaint,” Vanderpool reminded the board. “We did not receive that.” Vanderpool took exception to Stewart’s use of the word “power,” encouraging the board to follow policy as written.
“We’re standing on one leg if we don’t follow policy,” board member Richie Brewer affirmed.
Underwood spoke of the procedures the state uses to determine what is considered “high quality instructional materials.” He explained that school districts choose to implement one of four curricula approved by the state, as Giles County did in 2020 when choosing the Amplify curriculum.
“Regardless of whether it’s on an approved list by the state of Tennessee, doesn’t mean we want our kids learning some of the garbage that’s in Amplify,” Stewart commented. Vanderpool reminded Stewart that his complaint must be more specific than “some garbage.”
Giles County is in the middle of a six-year contract with the Amplify/CKLA curriculum. Adopting another curriculum now would be at an additional cost to the county for a three-year minimum contract with one of the three remaining curricula choices that were previously rejected.
“What we have in place has been paid for,” said Beard. “That check has been written.”
Beard encouraged the board to “think about what we’re looking at as a school system to try to put raises in our teachers’ salaries and our renovation projects to try to get our schools up to speed,” when considering the potential cost of adopting a new curriculum.
Board member Mary McCloud mentioned her concern that the remaining three choices may be no better than the current selection.
Underwood informed the board that certain areas of concern within the curriculum could be excised or redacted rather than replacing the entire curriculum. Brewer commented that might be a better alternative to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
“We wonder why our kids are going off the rails, this is a good reason why,” Stewart alleged.
“I think you can look at social media a whole lot more than you can look at Homer [and] Edgar Allen Poe,” Vanderpool retorted. He referred to one of the words Stewart had earmarked within a Sherlock Holmes Story in the textbook, explaining that it is an old usage of a word, used appropriately in the text, that could be considered vulgar when taken out of context and used in current vernacular.
Stewart ultimately withdrew his motion, saying, “I will resubmit the complaint with all of the filth I can find, because there’s plenty of it.”
In other business at last week’s monthly meeting, the school board:
• Denied a request to approach the county finance committee for reimbursement to school board members for out-of-pocket expenses and time spent for recent board endeavors outside the normal scope of duties.
• First National Bank recognized three teachers as their Teacher of the Month. Brenda Rutherford, Brooke Pelfrey and Calista Pope were nominated by the school principals and received a gift card to thank them for their excellence.
• PES Energize and the Tennessee Valley Authority presented STEM grants to Giles County School administrators totaling $27,500. The grants will be used to purchase materials such as robots and maker labs for students’ use.
•Voted to approve a math implementation grant of $71,250 for each of two years to train teachers on the new math curriculum that will be implemented in the 2023-24 school year to replace common core curriculum.
• Approved the disposition of assets for three lawn mowers.
• Approved a budget amendment for School Capital Projects Fund 177 to reflect actual prices for previously approved purchases for the food service department.
• Approved policy 1.103 Board Self-Evaluation tool completion, with review to follow.
• Approved the first reading of changes to policy 1.102 Board Members Legal Status and the second reading of policy 6.306 Interference/Disruption of School Activities
The school board’s next work session will be April 21 and its next regular monthly meeting May 5, at 5 p.m. at the central office board room.