Elected trustees for a Houston school district voted Monday to directly handle more than a dozen pending complaints about the appropriateness of books in its campus libraries – skipping the first two layers of a process that involves professionally trained educators and librarians along with parents of students – in an attempt to alleviate a backlog of book challenges submitted by community members.
The Spring Branch ISD board, which serves about 35,000 students in West Houston, voted 4-3 to suspend Levels 1 and 2 of its book reconsideration process and have 14 pending challenges reviewed by the trustees themselves. The move was in response to a request for assistance made by district superintendent Jennifer Blaine, who said during Monday's board meeting that her staff has been consumed with processing 42 book challenges submitted this school year and needs to instead focus on daily instruction and finishing out the 2022-23 academic year.
Board president Chris Earnest described many of the recent challenges as "trivial" and "gamesmanship" designed to distract administrators and bog down district operations, because the complaints are related to innocuous children's books such as "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," "The Day the Crayons Quit" and "Peanut Butter & Jelly." The wave of complaints came after the board amended its procedures for book challenges.
"The point is they're frivolous, they need to go, they're bogging down the system," Earnest said. "We've got to do something about them."
At a time when school districts and public libraries across the Houston area and Texas are having politicized debates about the content of books and other materials, the trustees in Spring Branch discussed the measure for nearly an hour before the split vote. That came after more than an hour of public comments about the issue, with parents and other community members expressing both support and opposition for the idea.
Board members Minda Caesar, Chris Gonzalez and Josef Klam voted against what was described as a temporary suspension of the first two parts of the district's book reconsideration process, which involves a review by a committee of staff and community members and potentially upper-level administration upon an appeal. Gonzalez said she was concerned about trustees' qualifications to review the educational suitability of books, adding that she has valued the input and expertise of district teachers, librarians and administrators, while Klam suggested such a responsibility is outside of the board's purview and could take up too much of its time and energy.
"I start to get uncomfortable when I start to think about elected bodies overreaching. That's my concern," Klam said. "We're stepping out of the lane as the overseers and stepping into the lane as the doers. ... Does it resolve a problem? Yes. Does it create additional problems? It could."
One community member called the plan a "terrible idea," saying book reviews should not be the responsibility of the board and that it usurps power from professional educators "who know what they're doing when it comes to selecting and reviewing library materials."
Another Spring Branch community member, who said she has served on book review committees and did not support the proposal to take pending challenges directly to trustees, criticized district officials for complaining about the influx of challenges this year. According to Blaine, all but eight of the book challenges the district has received since August 2021 were submitted this school year.
Earnest said many of the pending challenges were submitted during a three-day span.
"You created a system and are now upset that people are using it," the community member said.
There also were Spring Branch-area residents who said they supported the idea and thought more needed to be done to screen the appropriateness of materials in campus libraries and expedite the district's book review process, which has taken months in some cases. One parent read an excerpt from a high-school level book she said she challenged that included a depiction of oral sex involving teenagers.
"This isn't about banning books," she said. "It's about what's educationally suitable for our children. Please do the right thing."
Blaine said Spring Branch ISD has processed 28 of the 42 book challenges it has received this year, and she recently asked board members for assistance in handling the remaining challenges. She added that she "cannot and will not" continue to pull her staff away from educational duties to focus on the challenges, because it could be a detriment to student learning.
Before voting, the trustees characterized the amended review policy as temporary, saying they wanted to eliminate the backlog and revisit the issue after this school year.
"I personally would make a plea to the community," Klam said. "If you're a person that's made one of these (challenges), if it was part of gamesmanship, was an attempt to clog the system, you can always withdraw the complaint."