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Wake school board backs LGBTQ, diverse books grants. But the vote comes after a fight.

A split Wake County school board approved grant proposals this week allowing teachers to apply for money for LGBTQ projects and to purchase diverse books for their schools.

The Wake school board generally approves without discussion the grants that the district and individual schools can apply for. But the board’s two Republican members pushed this week for public discussion about a pair of grants — leading to accusations at the board table about agendas being pushed.

“Goodness gracious how are we not trusting the teachers with this?” board member Sam Hershey said to fellow board member Cheryl Caulfield. “For whose agenda are you doing this for? I don’t understand why we’re having this conversation. We need diverse books..”

But Caulfield responded that it’s important to consider the agendas of the groups behind the grants.

“I want to know what it is that we’re trying to put in front of our children,” Caulfield said. “Why do we keep pushing these agendas instead of focusing on educational things?”

‘Matters of life and death’

The debate at Tuesday’s school board meeting highlights the ongoing cultural wars going on across North Carolina and the nation.

It led to state lawmakers adopting the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” The law’s provisions include barring instruction on gender identity, sexuality or sexual activity in kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms.

Speakers regularly debate at school board meetings about what books should be allowed in school libraries.

“The school board is debating a grant from the organization We Need Diverse Books, which includes ‘Boy Meets Boy,’ etc,” speaker John Balog said at this week’s board meeting. “You can go on their website and check it out.

“Yes we need diversity. We need subject and curriculum diversity. We need passing grades in math, English, science, social studies, music.”

He said anything else needs parental consent.

But speaker Renee Sekel said students need to read about the lives of marginalized students. As an example she pointed to the case of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student in Oklahoma who died this month a day after a fight in school.

“If such books weren’t under such deep attack then maybe a precious 16-year-old non-binary child who was beaten brutally to death in a bathroom in Oklahoma ... at their school, good gravy, would be alive today. These are matters of life and death.” Sekel said.

Grant will ‘empower LGBTQ youth’

Administrators presented Tuesday a proposal to allow schools to apply for grants from the It Gets Better Project. According to the district’s abstract, It Gets Better “seeks to support secondary school-based projects that empower LGBTQ youth in all 50 states.”

Teachers can seek grants of up to $10,000 from It Gets Better. Wake says no school has yet requested the grant.

Board member Wing Ng asked for the grant to be moved from the consent agenda — where noncontroversial items are voted on as a group — to the action agenda where there’s a separate vote. Ng and Caulfield are the only two Republicans among the nine members on the officially non-partisan board.

Ng’s request was rejected in a 5-4 vote. Later, Ng and Caulfield were the only members who voted against the consent agenda.

Will grant violate Parents’ Bill of Rights?

More time was spent Tuesday over whether to allow schools to apply for grants from We Need Diverse Books. The board delayed the vote at Caulfield’s request on Feb. 6 and moved it to the action agenda for this week’s meeting.

Wake County school board members argue whether to allow teachers to apply for grants from the group We Need Diverse Books at its Feb. 20, 2024 meeting in Cary, N.C.
Wake County school board members argue whether to allow teachers to apply for grants from the group We Need Diverse Books at its Feb. 20, 2024 meeting in Cary, N.C.

Under the grant, teachers can request grants of up to $2,000 “to purchase books featuring diverse characters or written by diverse authors.” Three elementary schools have told the district they intend to apply for a grant.

Caulfield said she supports providing students with diverse books. But she questioned how We Need Diverse Books gets funding from groups that support issues such as reproductive rights and gender equity.

Caulfield and Ng said they were concerned that elementary students could get access to books that violate the Parents’ Bill of Rights. Unlike Johnston County, Wake isn’t applying the prohibition on K-4 instruction on gender identity, sexuality or sexual activity to books in school libraries.

“I don’t think it’s off the wall for me to say certain subject matter shouldn’t be in front of our young children,” Caulfield said. “And you stated that the people who are requesting this are elementary school kids

“So whether it be in the classroom or whether it be in the library , yeah we may have rules that they can’t see something from kindergarten to fourth grade. But who’s to say that if it’s in that library that those kids are not picking it up?”

District staff told Caulfield that none of the elementary school books would be about reproductive health.

‘Trust our teachers’ on book selection

Multiple Democratic board members used words like “offended” and “offensive” to describe their feelings about the opposition to the We Need Diverse Books grant.

“I’m offended as a former teacher for this district that we have folks who don’t quite understand the nuances of what goes on with this,” said board member Tyler Swanson. “We can’t say that we’re supporting teachers on one hand and then try to slap teachers’ hands for actually applying and doing their due diligence and finding grants that meet the needs of the students in their classroom.”

Board chair Chris Heagarty had to step into the argument between Hershey and Caulfield. Hershey said it was a waste of time for the board to be reviewing $2,000 grants.

“I don’t understand what we’re doing here,” Hershey said. “This is $2,000 and we’re worried about where the organization that we’re applying for the grant is getting their money from?

“Do we really want to start creating a situation where we are digging in and investigating the background of every single person who makes a donation to this school system? Because I don’t.”

Several board members said they trust teachers not to use books that violate the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

“I trust our teachers,” said board member Lindsay Mahaffey. “I trust our folks and our staff to help our teachers go through this to make sure that this will be all within the legal rights.

“But to be able to do this, I’m not going to deny it on the front end just because of what might happen on the back end.”

The board voted 8-1 to allow schools to apply for the grant. Ng voted no. Caulfield was silent during the voice vote, which under board rules is considered to be a yes vote.