It was one of those Tuesdays when speakers line up to express to the Hillsborough County School Board their disapproval of racy reading material in the school libraries.
Dalton Gregory Williford, a candidate for a board seat in District 3, suggested parental permission slips to protect school employees from being prosecuted if a student checked out a book deemed pornographic under state law.
Julie Magill, a real estate professional, said school-based “indoctrination” might be the reason for a doubling in the number of students identifying as transgender or nonbinary.
The two struck up a conversation and, three months later, Magill is running for school board too.
With the qualifying deadline eight months away for the 2024 races, culture war issues such as sex in school library books have already emerged as recurrent themes among this new crop of candidates.
Some have not yet posted campaign websites, and not all are taking calls from news reporters. But their digital footprints show at least half are taking cues from conservative organizations like Moms for Liberty, which have put the nation’s school districts on defense.
Magill, for one, is open in expressing cultural messages that extend beyond books.
“We will fight to keep your kids from being taught anything other than academics,” she says on her campaign website, referring to “gender manipulation suggestions,” the U.S. Department of Education’s “liberal agendas” and “teachers’ values or ideologies.”
While most incumbents said they wish voters were more concerned with issues such as low student reading levels, bus driver shortages and children’s easy access to guns, culture war issues are impossible to ignore.
Since Moms For Liberty burst on the scene about two years ago, its message about reading materials that are too coarse for children has begun to resonate with a broader audience, including school board members and hopefuls who now agree with the need for some discretion.
Some lament what they say are missteps — such as placing “This Book Is Gay,” a nonfiction book that is recommended for high school readers, in the library at Pierce Middle School. The school board removed the book from middle schools in late March, and incidents such as this one have some candidates searching for a middle ground.
“I do not believe that teachers go into education to indoctrinate children,” said Bonnie Lambert, a former teacher and administrator who is challenging Jessica Vaughn of New Tampa for her seat in District 3.
“However, I definitely believe there are books that need to be taken out and not taught in our schools.”
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School board member Henry “Shake” Washington, who does not yet have a challenger in District 5, said at a board workshop: “I feel like if a book has any type of sexual connotation, take it off. But that’s me.” When a constituent countered that “I want my kid to understand life,” Washington said, “I couldn’t debate that.”
Board member Lynn Gray, who has five challengers for her countywide seat, said that as a grandmother who opposes children’s access to pornography, “I definitely think it’s desensitizing our youth.” But she acknowledged some books are being challenged even though they do not fit any reasonable definition of pornography — for example, children’s books that showcase same-sex couples.
In an election year, it’s safe to assume the issue will continue to command attention, she said. “I think that it will be because it’s a great fundraising item.”
Vaughn sees the book issue as a paradox.
“I think a majority of things that are more culture war issues than actual parent concerns are always going to motivate a certain percentage of the voters because this is just how, as a country, we are divided,” she said.
Parents and district employees are more concerned about teacher shortages and courses that are being cut, she said. But “it’s hard to anticipate what voters are going to care about.”
Board chairperson Nadia Combs, who is being challenged in District 1 by Magill and Layla Collins, grows frustrated at the attention the book issue is getting. In her visits to schools, she said she sees media specialists working with students with a high degree of professionalism. She has maintained consistently that children face far greater threats on their smartphones.
To the critics, she asks: “Why don’t they go to the schools and see what I see? Librarians are the center of their communities. Why don’t they spend a day in a library and talk to a high school librarian and find out what’s happening?”
But even candidates who do not fully support the book challenge movement typically agree with the need for some controls.
Gray said the system in place for selecting and reevaluating books in Hillsborough is “good, but not excellent.”
Ashley Hartfield-Viewins, who teaches middle school in Hillsborough through a contracting agency, is running for Gray’s seat but has taken a similar position. “I understand the importance of literacy and how a whole universe can open to you by just a single book,” Hartfield-Viewins said. “But for me, mind does have to be paid to the exposure and grade level. I don’t want my 5-year-old daughter exposed to a middle school book or one with sexuality and profanity.”
Some of the challengers are drawn by issues that extend beyond books.
First-time candidate Karen Bendorf, another challenger for Gray’s seat, said she has long felt the school board and district are too prone to promoting liberal policies and practice. A social studies teacher at Plant City’s Tomlin Middle, she would like to see a more balanced board and has found herself in some uncomfortable situations at work.
She applauded the work of state lawmakers, who recently approved additional “parental rights” legislation.
“Starting this year, I can just be in a classroom and teach,” Bendorf said. “I don’t have to worry, as a parent first of all, about a teacher asking my own child what their preferred pronoun is. As a teacher, I don’t have to worry about a student wanting me to call them something that’s different.”
On the issue of books, she said, “I wouldn’t say I’m running because of that, just because I think we are on the right path. But I do think that is an important issue. I think it’s important that our kids should have access to good, healthy reading material that is safe and that is academic and that is not pornographic and isn’t inappropriate. And I would make sure I always vote in favor of something that would do that.”