Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau School Board approved excluding some books with “sensitive topics” for elementary school students starting this fall, citing concerns about potential undue influence by “politically motivated” teachers.

The Board on Monday heard a presentation from Chris Nyman, the district’s director of Learning and Student Achievement, who recommended adopting the Wit and Wisdom English Language Arts curricular resource for grades 3-5, along with a secondary supporting program of Phonics for Reading. Nyman said “sensitive” content has been removed after a vetting process that began in October.

Some members of the Board on Monday, including Lee Webster, expressed concerns about books on subjects involving race and relationships.

“One of the schools…that had a very serious race relationship issue and some of the things that would have promoted or could have been used by a teacher who was politically motivated to really significantly influence the kids in the direction that I would be uncomfortable with,” Webster said. “Same way with some of the marriage and family sorts of things.” He did not name the school.

“Just looking at some of the books and some of the materials that are in there, I’m thinking from my mental health perspective, is what’s happening in many of those books are raising issues that I wonder if the students are truly mature enough to be dealing with things like divorce, infidelity, war, tragic loss of whole families, death, grieving, those kinds of issue which, from my perspective, sounded a lot like a group therapy program as opposed to reinforcing the kinds of skills that we are talking about in ‘Leader in me’,” said Webster.

‘Leader in me’ is a program that aims to instill leaderships skills in students and teach them life skills to deal with social and emotional issues.

The WSD Board approved the new resources unanimously. Members James Bouche and Jane Rusch were absent.

A number of school boards across the country have sought to limit the teaching of race, marriage, and sex. Some districts have even gone to the extent of banning the teaching of some books, arguing it was harming white children who were made to feel guilty. Some boards have gone to the extent of downplaying the role slavery played in the Civil War, raising alarm from some quarters.

Conversely, other districts nationwide including several within Wisconsin are taking proactive steps to provide more inclusive programming for students. The Stevens Point Area School District in July hired Dr. Sam Dinga as the schools’ Equity, Diversity and Inclusion coordinator, for example, while the River Falls School District created an Equity, Inclusivity and Diversity Committee to ensure “a safe, welcoming, and academically engaging environment for all students.” Similar efforts are underway in Bloomer, Madison, Mequon and within a range of other districts.

Banning certain books, or taking them off the required reading list, has increased nationwide, especially amid objections by conservative circles.

Webster, who praised the ‘Leader in Me’ concept, added he was concerned that if the “positive aspects” of the program were not adopted by teachers “what we are going to do, I think, potentially it could be very harmful for some kids.” Webster, however, was not alone on the WSD Board who have found “sensitive topics” not being age appropriate. Two incumbents who were reelected this month, Bouche and Jon Creisher, have said they want schools to teach “age-appropriate content.”

Board Treasurer Lance Trollop agreed with Webster on sensitive topics, adding he was relieved to see the content excluded and lauded the vetting team’s “proactive approach” in removing certain content, rather than “just throwing (it) out there and dealing with the controversy that happens after.”

During the Board’s Education/Operations Committee last month, members had grilled the vetting team over the timing and need for a new curriculum. Board Clerk Karen Vandenberg on Monday thanked the team for “proactively (choosing) those alternate texts.”

Board President Pat McKee asked about the process of addressing content deemed “inappropriate” by parents, teachers and students. “Is there an established process for them to bring that question or concern to someone and have it addressed quickly? I am not saying immediately rip something out, but at least have someone review it quickly.”

“So, we do have policies regarding controversial topics in the classroom,” Nyman said, noting that those policies provided various specific guidelines. The principal and the teachers of the school concerned and district-level administrators would review the content. He added that Wit & Wisdom representatives have categorically assured them that they are “not interested in putting anyone or any district in an uncomfortable situation. Or forcing parents to have their children sit in classrooms and be exposed to content that they are not comfortable with.”

Earlier, Nyman said that teacher materials contain guidance on how to teach sensitive topics and are not as easily accessible as student resources. “Guidance has been provided around developmentally appropriate responses when those sensitive topics come up,” Nyman said, adding that many of the “sensitive topics” have been eliminated.

“But we certainly trust that our teachers navigate those sensitive topics whether they come up as part of the universal instruction that we are providing for students or whether they come up as part of the discussion,” Nyman said.

Board member Ka Lo asked whether the new curricula on Phonics in Reading could be delayed since some of the staff expressed concern that they might not have adequate time to go over the program that has been included to support the Wit & Wisdom content. Nyman said that will not be possible.

WSD Board to discuss role Nexus Solutions for schools’ facility needs

The role of Nexus Solutions, the consulting firm that the school administration had hired to do an initial assessment of district’s facility needs, also came up again on Monday.

Creisher asked for a third-party assessment on the need to continue with Nexus, saying many have raised concerns about the high fee the consulting firm is being paid. It is roughly $8.5 million. He suggested that the assessment could be completed in about four weeks, with the total expenditure not exceeding $10,000 for the task.

Unclear was why Creisher raised the issue again after raising it during a January meeting, since discussion on the firm concluded before the April 5 referendum that voters passed by a significant margin. In January, when the Board discussed the overall cost, Nexus Solutions’ owner Michael David threatened the Board with “consequences” if the contract was breached.

On Monday, Trollop questioned whether the assessment was even necessary and suggested it might be a waste of time and money.

Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts, who had defended engaging Nexus Solutions in January, did so again by saying Nexus owns all of the planning on the facility needs so far and removing the firm would derail the timeline.

Creisher’s review proposal was backed by Board President McKee who said if the assessment could be completed within the four-week suggested time frame, he was in favor of it. He also suggested Hilts and Creisher discuss the matter further and bring up an update to the Board in two weeks.

According to district documents, the agreement with Nexus includes initial assessment of district needs through a full facilities audit and the development of proposed solutions that the Board may consider. “Approval to enter into this facility(y) master planning agreement was given by the Board in June 2019,” according to the district.

(To read more about the vetting process and suggestions, click here, and go to item IX.B.3 3-5 ELA Resource Adoption.)