This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

April 12, 2000 - Controversial Materials

Last week I attended a Douglas County School Board meeting. It was, at times, a tense night.

First up was the fate of the Colorado Visionary Academy charter school. It had been given some 30 days to solve a staggering set of problems. After presentations by various folks, some probing questions from the Board, and a recess to allow the two sides to huddle, it was decided to give the school district another week to digest all of the data presented that day. Then some 80 people or so got up and left.

Next up was the controversial materials policy. The previous policy went something like this: if teachers wanted to make classroom use of supplementary readings or materials that might be considered controversial, they first had to present the materials, and the purpose for which they were intended, to the principal. The principal might say no. If the answer was yes, then the teacher sent home a description and a permission slip to the parents. If the child did not return with the slip, the child could not participate. This is referred to as an "Opt In" approach -- that is, without parental permission, the child was excused, in which case the teacher had to come up with some other activity for that child.

The new, proposed policy differed in this final respect: parents had to say that they did NOT want their children to be exposed to the material. This is the Opt Out approach -- unless the parent objects, the child participates.

Why the proposed change? According to school district officials, there were several aims. The first was simply to preserve instructional time. The Opt In approach generates a lot of paperwork and accounting, time that by definition is not spent preparing for class or teaching.

The second goal was to encourage critical thinking: teachers sometimes run across current materials that present another side of an issue, challenging the sometimes very bland presentations of textbooks and more effectively engaging the student.

The third aim was to protect the child -- from what, I'm not exactly sure. Controversy, I suppose. To state the matter more diplomatically, the school district did not wish to offend parents by presenting information that might contradict values strongly held at home, or at least not without some notification.

Then the school board listened, most politely and attentively, to some 15 people who were actively opposed to the policy change, and mentioned a petition with 89 names of people who agreed with them.

Then a teacher spoke in favor of the new policy. Then I spoke in favor of it. By this time, it was about 10:30 p.m. (Board meetings typically begin at 7 p.m.)

Then the Board discussed it, carefully considering the viewpoints expressed, and expressing their own. Finally, they voted. The new policy passed, although narrowly: 4 to 3. Voting against it were Bill Noyce, Vicky Starkey, and Jim McCormick.

After the vote, another 25 people got up and left. But the Board stayed, with plenty of important business still to be tackled.

The Board stayed. They had sat through two (potentially) very contentious sessions, with some occasionally very agitated people. Throughout the long night, the Board kept its cool, listened carefully and respectfully to all, then made thoughtful decisions.

Like many other people who believe, heart and mind, in the importance of public education, I too have come before the Board in an agitated state. I don't always agree with their decisions. Even when I do, it is often not for the same reasons.

But even when I disagree, I always remember this: I genuinely respect the Board, every single member. Their time commitment alone is impressive. It is perfectly apparent that every individual on the Board is there, not for the glory or the pay (there's none, or not much, of either), but because they genuinely care about the quality of education in Douglas County. They prove this, not by the occasional 3 minute appearance when there's a hot issue (which is what I do), but through meeting after meeting, sometimes dealing with the extremely mundane.

My point? I'm grateful to them. I offer not only to the members of the school board, but also to the people who serve on a host of public boards -- the library, the town, the county, and much more -- my sincere gratitude. Thanks for showing up. Thanks for staying even when everybody else gets up and leaves.

To my mind, the whole purpose of the public library is to allow the average citizen to ask questions, to explore, to consider, and finally to draw his or her own conclusions. The public library is a democracy of ideas, each struggling to prevail. But the rules of engagement are simple: we must be civil. We must treat each other with respect. We must be mindful both of the individual, and of society.

It's a lot like a school board meeting.

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