Last week, without explanation, the Marlboro School Board banned two young adult books out of four that were slated for students at the High School; “Dear Martin” by Nic Stone and “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo.
Four books were recommended by Superintendent Michael Brooks, but these two were singled out to be pulled by board members Patricia Benninger and Mike Connors, with board members in agreement.
Later, board member Faith Nannini made a motion to discuss the matter further, however, no other board member seconded her motion and it died on the floor.
During public input, former school board president Frank Millazo questioned the board’s action to ban these books without even a discussion.
“The board didn’t even pause enough to have a conversation, which means there must be enough conversations going on behind the scene and not in public, which is supposed to happen in a public meeting, to discuss why two books the Superintendent and the staff recommended to approve [were removed],” he said. “It’s just a very bad look for the board.”
When asked by the Southern Ulster Times for a brief explanation on the board’s action, Benninger began to comment but was cut off board President John Cantone.
Superintendent Brooks then explained that a provision in the school board’s policies prohibits the board from engaging in a “back and forth’ during the public input portion of the meeting.
The board’s policy document, however, makes no mention that interactive discussions are not allowed during public comment.
The book “Dear Martin” follows a Black high school student, Justyce McAllister, who attends a predominantly White preparatory school in Atlanta, Georgia on a scholarship. After an incident where Justyce was thrown to the ground and handcuffed by a White police officer, he begins to write letters to the spirit of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a way to make sense of what happened to him. The focus of the letters poses a central question, “What would Dr. King do if he were alive today?”
In “The Poet X”, Xiomara Batista is a fifteen year old Dominican teenager living in Harlem in New York City who loves to write poetry. Her goal is to share her work with the world but her mother is more focused on having her daughter confirmed, which Xiomara has put off for 3 years.
Xiomara also develops a love for her school lab partner, Aman, but their relationship is threatened after her mother sees the young couple kissing on a train. Her mother also discovers Xiomara’s poetry, all of which leads to a confrontation between mother and daughter.
After the board voted to pull the books, member Karen Brooks said she would like to revisit this issue, admitting that she only skimmed the books in question.
In a subsequent interview Superintendent Brooks said after reviewing the board policy document, he said it does not contain language that prohibits the board from interacting with a resident who is at the podium during public comment.
Board President John Cantone acknowledged that the information put forth last week on this issue was not accurate.
“What is sort of implied and a best practice that a lot of boards use, is that it’s really meant to be a meeting for public comments only, not for a back and forth. It’s not a public meeting, it’s a board meeting and the public is invited. It is always loosely interpreted depending on different school districts and boards and how strict they want to be about it.”
Cantone said there was a bit of confusion over this matter at last week’s meeting, adding that it did not make sense to continue to talk about the topic after a motion to do so failed.
“To me it made sense to just cut the conversation off and see where everybody else takes this next, if it goes anywhere.” he said.
Cantone is not sure this particular issue is over because he believes that people want to know what was so objectionable about the contents of these two books. He said the board policy on this needs to be clarified for the public.
“Mike [Brooks] acknowledged it was a mistake as it’s not explicitly written but is implied that part of the meeting is there for public statements, not necessarily for dialogue,” Cantone said.
Cantone said he was surprised when even a motion to discuss the two books failed to receive a 2nd, however he did not vote for Nannini’s motion.
“I really would have preferred the board to come back and regroup and if we really felt we had to have a discussion in public, then we should do it the right way and see what happens,” he said.