Tensions run hot as Moorestown BOE addresses summer reading controversy

Profanity and sexual topics in summer reading selection had parents speaking out against the middle school summer reading selection.

What started as a celebratory evening recognizing the accomplishments of Moorestown students turned heated during public comments when controversy surrounding the summer reading selection for William Allen Middle School generated impassioned comments both in favor and opposed to the book.

The book in question is “My Most Excellent Year” by Steve Kluger. The book’s inclusion of profanity and sexual topics had parents questioning the appropriateness of the selection for middle school students.

Those in attendance at last Tuesday night’s meeting repeatedly mentioned the hundreds of posts and comments on social media that have talk of the book circulating throughout the Moorestown community.

Parent Richelle Rabenou spoke passionately against the selection during public comments, saying she thinks the book does not represent “the values we want to promote.” Rabenou said she learned about the novel on Facebook.

“I don’t think it’s the school’s responsibility to promote a progressive social agenda at our children because there are people who don’t always embrace every social aspect that’s covered in this book,” Rabenou said.

Rabenou prefaced her comments by confirming she is supportive of the LGBT community and its rights and is sympathetic to students who wrestle with LGBT identity issues.

Parent James Mumma said his concern was that his daughter had informed him that students who refuse to read the book are receiving backlash, with some being called a “gay hater.”

“So this isn’t adults arguing with adults,” Mumma said. “These are kids now.”

One of the book’s three protagonists, Augie Hwong, is a gay teen.

In response, Moorestown High School language teacher Lisa Trapani questioned whether the board should make decisions based on social media chatter. She asked Superintendent Scott McCartney how many letters he had received from parents, and he said to date he has received approximately 12.

“I can’t even express how disturbing this is,” Trapani said. “To say there are hundreds [of complaints] and then you have 12 to 15 letters, that is not acceptable.”

Board member Dimitri Schneiberg said there are lots of ways that people communicate these days.

“It’s our responsibility to hear all the modern ways that individuals can voice concerns,” Schneiberg said. “To listen and understand the sentiments of the community based on social media is more than appropriate.”

Schneiberg suggested offering students an alternate summer reading to “My Most Excellent Year.”

WAMS principal Matthew Keith said he and other members of the 14-person curriculum committee did not anticipate the outcry against the book. Keith said he sent a letter to students’ parents about the book, and he ended the discussion about the book by encouraging parents to read the book themselves before rushing to judgment.

“I encourage anybody to come in and meet with me but also to read the book,” Keith said. “Let’s have a conversation.”

In other news:

• Kathy Goldenberg announced her resignation from the board. Goldenberg has been selected to serve on the New Jersey Board of Education, which required her to step down from her Moorestown position.

“Moorestown is definitely losing a dynamic leader,” McCartney said.

Brandon Pugh acted as interim president in Goldenberg’s place at the meeting. He said he was saddened to see Goldenberg go, but he knows her passion for education will continue at the state level.

Goldenberg was decidedly emotional as she left her seat in the crowd to say a few brief words. She said she has a great love and respect for the Moorestown school district.

“Moorestown is one of the finest institutions for education in this state,” Goldenberg said.

• The Board of Education held its “Pageant of Success” following Goldenberg’s brief speech. Students from Upper Elementary School received accolades for their accomplishments in the visual and performing arts and sciences. At the high school level, the athletes on the boys’ track team were recognized for breaking records.