A library grant tied to Illinois’ anti-book-ban law raises red flags for Huntley District 158 school board

Board president called the new law ‘political popcorn’

Students leave Marlowe Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. The Huntley Community District 158 board at its Sept. 21 meeting voiced concerns about the Secretary of State’s library grant program.

The prospect of Huntley schools accepting a library grant from the state of Illinois – whose new anti-book-ban law means those who take the money can’t restrict material for “partisan or doctrinal” reasons – raised some red flags among District 158 school board members.

Board President Andy Bittman, who called the law “political popcorn” at a Thursday evening board meeting, said he was concerned about the strings attached to the funding, particularly whether they would limit the district’s ability to restrict what students can access on the internet.

“I don’t want to make the internet wide open,” Bittman said.

District 158 expects to receive about $8,000 from grant program, run through the office of Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, a vocal backer of the anti-book ban law, which goes into effect Jan. 1.

“I’m not sure $8,000 is worth the risk,” Bittman said.

Despite the concerns, interim superintendent Jessica Lombard recommended the board apply for the grant, since the deadline is Sunday. Officials indicated they could still decide to decline or return the grant money later.

Despite the law ostensibly being about book bans, Bittman clearly said board discussion wasn’t about banning books, and that the board wasn’t advocating for book bans.

“We all talked about the access,” he said.

Illinois is the first state to enact a law that aims to prevent book bans in public and school libraries.

Currently, several strings are attached to the funding, among them that the library must be open to students for 15 hours per week, and the school district must show that support is going to the libraries.

Leen Yassine, deputy press secretary for Giannoulias, said that in order to get the grant funding, recipients also will have to adopt the American Library Association Bill of Rights or a similar standard. The library association’s bill of rights states that libraries should not remove materials “because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

The library grants award funding based on district enrollment size, and Huntley High School is one of the largest high schools by enrollment in the state of Illinois. The district’s grant funding is among the larger sums given out by the program.

“It’s not so much the money to me,” Bittman said at a Sept. 21 board meeting, when the library grant program was also discussed.

Bittman later said in an email to the Northwest Herald that the new law banning book bans spurred the concerns about the grant.

“We would like to understand any process changes before going ahead with the grant application,” Bittman wrote in the email. He didn’t reply to a follow-up email asking whether there would be specific process changes the school district might implement.

Board Vice President Laura Murray wrote in an email that she sought information about how the ALA defines the age range for young adult books.

“That’s a huge concern,” Murray said at the Sept. 21 meeting of the ALA defining that age range as 12 to 18.

Bittman and Murray ran for the school board last spring on a slate alongside board member Michael Thompson and former board member Gina Galligar, who resigned last month.

Thompson previously told the Northwest Herald about his objections to certain books, specifically mentioning “This Book is Gay” and “Gender Queer,” two books that discuss LGBTQ+ topics, but Thompson said that wasn’t why he objected to them.

Time is of the essence if Huntley wants to get in on the grant funding – the applications are due Sunday, according to the Secretary of State’s website. In fiscal 2023, Huntley received $7,438.20 from the program, according to public documents.

For his part, Giannoulias, who also serves as the state librarian, has been outspoken against book bans. He joined a webinar hosted by the Vernon Area Public Library last week to discuss his efforts against book bans, and he recently testified in front of a U.S. Senate Committee last month about book bans and Illinois’ new law.

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