Books for sale, RCAS to deal with organizational changes

The Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education will sell three of five book titles previously slated for destruction after a vote on Tuesday.

After months of consultation with legal counsel, the council voted 4 to 2 to sell 174 copies of Imbolo Mbue’s ‘How Beautiful We Were: A Novel’, 26 copies of ‘Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel by Bernadine Evaristo, and 72 copies of Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” to a book buyer. Council members Clay Colombe and Michael Birkeland voted against the surplus. Council member Jamie Clapham was absent from the meeting.

The books were previously ‘to be destroyed’ on the May 3 board agenda along with two other titles: Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ and Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’.” Nicole Swigart, acting executive director of RCAS, told the Journal in August that 30 copies of “The Circle” and 35 copies of “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” were no longer in the school’s warehouse.

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All five books were deemed inappropriate by district administrators at the start of the 2021-22 school year. The books were purchased the summer before last school year for Grade 12 English classes. At the May 3 meeting, the council voted to delay the decision to destroy the books.

Acting CEO Nicole Swigart said the superintendent’s office takes responsibility for the books because “the buck stops” at her desk.

She said the district is responsible for providing suitable materials for all students. She said that when administrators, teachers, students and community members find fault with the program, those concerns deserve to be addressed. Swigart said that in this case, a new course has been created.

“To be perfectly honest, from all the research I’ve done, the material selection process was not equal to our normal program process,” Swigart said.

She said the new curriculum usually goes through a full curriculum review, but in this case the books were chosen by the staff at a very short notice, these book titles were shared via a purchase order, arrived at the superintendent’s office and were then purchased.

Swigart said the complaints came quickly and because the process was not followed in full from the start, the books were taken down.

“The district must agree and take steps to ensure that future course materials are fully vetted and approved in the same manner as all course materials are approved for this district,” she said.

Birkeland said selling the books now and putting them on a surplus list is premature and thinks the books should go through the review process. He said he thought the books would pass the review process and even offered to keep the books at his house himself.

He said mistakes were made throughout the process. Birkeland said in the spring, before serving on the board, that he felt the situation was “scapegoating” for staff. He also said he thought it was a mistake to say that teachers were distributing pornographic material.

“Pornography and graphic design are very different things and I think that line needs to be drawn,” he said.

He said there were graphic parts in classics like “Romeo and Juliet” and terrible language in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“Where do we draw this line?” he said.

Birkeland suggested a new policy might be needed and said he was concerned about the precedent it might set with comments on the program and material.

Students, parents and community members spoke out for and against the book titles and asked for updates, between May and October. The controversy became so widespread that it garnered national attention, including author Dave Eggers who traveled to Rapid City and offered to purchase the books that were to be destroyed.

Eggers also offered to ship one of the books to Rapid City high schoolers from independent bookstores.

The board also approved a change to the district’s organizational chart that would be implemented July 1, 2023. According to the resolution, which was approved 6-0, further work will be done on the organizational chart in the coming weeks. The board will also submit a request for proposal in the future for the search for a superintendent.

The board-approved chart now places superintendent/CEO and chief financial and operations officer separately under the board of education. Below the Superintendent/CEO are the Assistant Superintendent and Directors, and below the Director of Finance and Operations are Support Services. Above the board, however, is the community.

Carr said he suggested the changes to the organizational chart because there was previously a bottleneck in communication between the administration and the school board.

“We were finding out that we didn’t know a lot of things that needed to be communicated to the board,” he said. “Those under the superintendent’s office assumed the information was coming back to us. It wasn’t.”

Carr said he hopes the new organization will eliminate some of that and that the board will be informed and educated about what’s going on.

— Contact Siandhara Bonnet at [email protected]

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