After hours of public comment, Mat-Su school board’s vote to rescind book removal is pushed to later this month

Three of the five books the Mat-Su Borough School Board voted in late April to remove from the reading list for high school elective English classes. (Photo by Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

The Mat-Su Borough School Board was scheduled on Wednesday to reconsider its controversial decision to pull five books from the reading list for high school English elective classes. But, it ran out of time, and voted against extending the meeting, following hours of public testimony.

The school board will now decide later in May whether to rescind its vote to remove the books, including “The Great Gatsby,” “Catch-22” and “Invisible Man.” Its initial decision in late April to pull the novels from the reading list of the upper-level English classes sparked outrage, drew national attention to the school district and led to an offer from the band Portugal. The Man to send the books to any student in the school district who wanted to read them.

“This was placed back on the agenda because of the difficulties we’re having with COVID, the inability for the community to speak and also, in light of the previous vote, information has been brought forth that needs to be considered,” said board president Tom Bergey during Wednesday’s meeting.

More than 50 people phoned in to testify at the meeting, nearly all of them calling on the board to rescind the prior vote, and put the books back in the curriculum. The two other books pulled are “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and “The Things They Carried.” The board has deemed the five books too controversial because they contain sexual references, descriptions of rape, profanity or racial slurs, among other listed reasons.

It had also voted to remove The New York Times’ section, “The Learning Network,” from class materials.

Michelle Church told the board that the books are great works of literature, and deserve a robust, classroom discussion led by teachers.

“The goal of high school should be preparing our young people to take on the role of leadership. And hiding from difficult topics or homogenizing and rewriting history will make us weaker and more vulnerable in the world,” Church said. “Banning, or roadblocking books, however you want to put it, is the same result.”

Many other shared similar concerns, including teachers. Others told the board they were overstepping their duties, some questioned their intentions and accused them of flouting the public process by not giving people enough notice before pulling the books from the curriculum.

“The fact that any book was banned without following proper procedure is embarrassing,” said Palmer High student Annika Gagnon.

Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was considered controversial, in part, because of “anti-white” messaging, and Gagnon raised concerns about the school board censoring topics that make them uncomfortable.

“Uncomfortable is not synonymous with dangerous. What is dangerous is if white people continue to be comfortable with the way people of color have been and continue to be discriminated against, based on the color of their skin, something they cannot change,” Gagnon told the board. “The only way to break this chain is through education and it is very difficult to learn when the material needed to grow is censored.”

Just a few people spoke in favor of banning the teaching of the books, including Brian Endle. Endle said he read a portion of Angelou’s novel and said it was “disgusting” to think the book would make it on the reading list.

“I don’t want my tax dollars going to teach kids out of books like this,” Endle told board members. “It’s time the board looked into getting the Bible back into English elective curriculum and reading lists.”

After three hours public comments on Wednesday, the board voted 4-3 against extending its meeting beyond its 10 p.m. deadline to debate the book issue.

Voting against extending the meeting were Jim Hart, Ole Larson, Ryan Ponder and Jeff Taylor. They are four of the five board members who originally voted to pull the novels from the reading list, along with board president Bergey. Bergey voted Wednesday with Kelsey Trimmer and Sarah Welton to extend the meeting.

The board will now take the issue up again on May 20.