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Francis Howell School Board candidates talk critical race theory, controversial books

By Caroline Hecker

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    ST. LOUIS, Missouri (KMOV) — Taxpayers within the Francis Howell School District will have the opportunity to select two school board members in next week’s election.

Michelle Walker, the board’s treasurer, will not seek reelection. Mike Hoehn, who serves as vice president of the board, is seeking reelection. Hoehn has served on the Francis Howell School District’s Board of Education for 12 years.

“I’m really proud of our district, we’re always one of the top 10 in the state,” Hoehn said. “One of the great things our district has been able to do is keep kids in school. We were one of just a handful of districts that was able to keep kids in school the entire time, in-person learning, which it’s best for most kids to be in the classroom.”

Hoehn is facing five challengers, many of whom are parents in the district.

Adam Bertrand has four kids in the district and said he was inspired to get involved in the race after attending several school board meetings in the last year and hearing about the district’s financials related to Proposition S, a $244 million bond issue voters approved in June of 2020.

“The more I kept digging into what the district was doing and how they were operating, I kept finding more discrepancies on what they were telling the district versus what was actually going on,” Bertrand said.

Bertrand said he’s hopeful his background in process improvement and a MBA from Washington University in St. Louis will be an added benefit to the board, if elected.

“You should have significant financial controls, in my mind, to manage that, to make sure things are on schedule and things are being tracked the way they’re supposed to be, you need to make sure you’re meeting your goals and estimates and if you’re not, you need to be asking questions,” he said. “None of that was done, as far as I can tell, and I think it led partially to where we are now.

News 4 will have more on the candidate’s opinions of the handling of Proposition S on Thursday at 6 p.m.

Last summer, the Francis Howell School Board voted to approve two new elective classes offered at the district’s high schools. The two classes, Black History and Black Literature, have drawn both criticism and praise from teachers, students and parents.

“This is activist training in the guise of Black history and Black literature where they’re using unapproved framework, social justice framework,” Bertrand said. “We should be teaching kids how to think, not what to think.”

The curriculum for the courses is posted on the district’s website. Bertrand said he believes certain tenants of critical race theory are being conveyed within the courses.

“I believe it exists in pockets,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a systematic thing the district is trying to weave into everything. I think it’s making its way into schools both through classes like Black History and Black Literature but also our third party providers where they’re building into the curriculum they’re bringing in.”

In the last year, the district has faced five formal challenges of library books deemed controversial by some parents, as they’re seen as sexually explicit and not appropriate for young children.

“Are we providing the kids with an informal sexual education that doesn’t meet state regulation or school policy?,” he said. “There’s always the potential that there could be case made for that, that could open us to legal issues.”

Bertrand said he likes the idea of a system that integrates the student portal with the parent portal, enabling parents to see what their children are checking out of the library. According to a district spokesperson, all students have a “Destiny” account, which parents can access and see what items their student has checked out. Further, the district said parents can contact the school librarian to place a note on their child’s account regarding particular books they do not want them to check out.”

The district recently eliminated its 6th grade challenge courses, citing differences in achievement gaps and equity amongst students. Challenge courses remain in place for 7th and 8th graders.

“There are many ways to be successful in life, and if some of them that are gifted, and school is too easy, they don’t learn what kind of hard work they have to put in to reach their full potential in life, if we make it too easy,” Bertrand said. “That’s why we have those classes, to make them work harder.”

Randy Cook Jr. has two children in the district, one of which recently entered kindergarten. He, too, said after attending board meetings, he had more questions than answers about the district’s financial status.

“I started paying attention to meetings and just noticed there are some things I thought could be done better, especially around transparency, spending and academics are always a worry of mine,” he said. “I want to make sure they stay at the high level they’ve always been at and don’t start slipping.”

With a background in engineering, he’s hopeful he can help the district in its processes and its finances.

“The new Francis Howell North is what has been in the news, but there are other Prop S projects that are substantially overbudget,” he said. “By and large, it could have been handled better in my view.”

When it comes to the Black Literature and Black History classes, Cook Jr. said he has no objection to the offerings.

“I do have a problem with how those particular courses were written and structured,” he said. “There is no literature that says teaching things with a critical theory lens provides a good academic outcome all the time. We are kind of flying by the seat of our pants.”

Books deemed controversial by some parents in recent months, he said, have no place in a public school library.

“In the case of books with sexually explicit passages and scenes in them, I don’t think it’s appropriate to have them in a public school library and I think most taxpayers would agree with that if they read them,” he said.

Both Cook Jr. and Bertrand have been endorsed by Francis Howell Families, a nonprofit PAC that supports academic excellence and transparency.

Christine Hyman has two children, one of them a 2010 graduate of the district, the other a current freshman at Francis Howell North. Hyman said her main motivation for running is to improve communication and transparency between the board and the public.

“The more I saw the louder it got and the more divisive it got,” she said. “The things being spoken about are what I call ‘flash point issues’ and they’re just holding us back from being productive. I think there are greater things coming off a pandemic that we could be talking about.”

Hyman points to debates over masking, controversial books and critical race theory as recent divisive issues within the district.

“I don’t believe critical race theory, as defined, is being taught in the district,” she said. “What is critical race theory? It’s taking every single thing in society and looking at it through a different person’s viewpoint.”

As for books deemed controversial, Hyman said she sees both sides of the issue.

“I think they’re fine to have in the school library. I think the more information you can put in a child’s hands as far as reading is excellent,” she said. “At the same time, if a parent doesn’t want their kid to read that book, that’s okay.”

She is in favor of a portal allowing parents to monitor what their children are checking out from the library, but said it needs a built-in safety measure to protect the kids.

“The kids need to know that mom and dad know you checked out the book because you don’t want to harm a child,” she said. “By perhaps, outing a child, if they’re reading a LGBTQ book.”

Justin McCoy, a parent of students in the district and school board candidate, also believes critical race theory is not being taught within the district.

“Critical race theory isn’t being taught in Francis Howell School District, full stop,” he said. “If we say, we can’t talk about this because it’s considered critical race theory, then what are we leaving out from our children’s education and what disadvantage are they going to have in life when they get older by not learning that?”

McCoy said, if elected, he’d also like to focus on support and resources for teachers, along with increasing their pay. In doing so, he said, the district may be able to stop the number of teachers leaving for higher paying jobs.

Asked whether he believes some teachers let their individual biases or opinions interfere with classroom instruction, McCoy said every teacher is likely to view things through a particular lens, but should not allow it to impact what students are learning.

“Over 95 percent of our teachers in our district don’t have a personal agenda,” he said. “They just want to teach the kids and support the students, that’s what brings them joy in life.”

But what about the other 5 percent?

“Any public educator that is pushing a personal opinion or belief that is controversial, I think it’s important we address that and bring attention to that and have a system in place where if it continues to happen, those teachers are reprimanded in a particular way,” he said.

McCoy is supportive of offering all books within school libraries, but believes parents should have the ultimate oversight.

“Those books are there to provide our children resources to learn more about not just social topics, controversial topics and how to interact emotionally with other people,” he said. “But if a parent doesn’t want their kid reading a book, they should be able to step in and have a conversation with them.”

Rick Rice, who has spent more than 30 years in the transportation industry, said he entered the race to help the district regain control over its financials, particularly related to Proposition S. With a degree in economics from UMSL and experience running his own business, he’s hopeful he’ll get the chance to help.

“I’m used to crunching numbers, figuring out efficiencies, identifying problems and ensuring they don’t come up later,” he said.

Social issues are also an important part of the job to have ongoing discussions about, he said.

“I want to hear from parents, from teachers and from students,” he said. “We need to be able to talk about things, even if they are uncomfortable. I see no issue with the Black History and Black Literature classes.”

Rice is a supporter of creating a committee consisting of students, parents and teachers that decide whether a book is to be permitted within a school library.

“They should get to decide,” he said. “Parents should have the ultimate say over what their kids are reading.”

Hoehn has served on the Francis Howell School Board for 12 years and said he’s proud of what the district has accomplished in the last two years amid the pandemic.

“We were only a handful of districts that were able to keep kids in school the entire time, in-person learning and we know that’s best for most kids to be in classrooms,” he said.

The district consistently ranks as one of the top school districts in the state, something Hoehn said he hopes to continue if he is reelected.

“I will always put the students before my own needs or opinions,” he said.

Hoehn said he voted in favor of the Black History and Black Literature classes last summer, after several public comment hearings.

“I would do so again,” he said. “That being said, the main thing is those are optional courses, they are not required courses and no one is required to take those courses.”

Hoehn refuted the allegation that critical race theory has infiltrated curriculum within the district.

“We do not teach critical race theory and we do not have a critical race theory class in our curriculum,” he said. “That’s best answer I can provide you.”

He said he does not believe in the concept of “banned books,” believing they should be allowed within school libraries. However, he defaults to parents to make decisions about what their children are reading.

“I do strongly support the rights of parents to choose or decide what books their children can check out or read,” he said. “If they deem them to be inappropriate, they should have the right to say I don’t want my kid reading this book or checking this book out.”

As an incumbent board member, News 4 asked Hoehn extensive questions about the handling of Proposition S finances, particularly related to the Francis Howell North project. Hear what he and the other candidates had to say Thursday night at 6p.m. on KMOV.

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