Book-banning prompts school board interest

October 12, 2009 

Almost a year after a book-banning controversy erupted, seven candidates are vying for two seats on the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District Board of Education.

The board's high-profile yanking of "Bless Me, Ultima" from a sophomore English reading list apparently helped create more interest than usual. Two years ago, races for four seats attracted only four candidates, negating the need for an election, and four years ago, five people competed for two seats.

Incumbents Barbara Alexander and Derek Solano defended their votes to remove the Latino coming-of-age novel, though it remains in Orestimba High School's library. At least two challengers, Kerry McWilliams and Paul Wallace, say that decision was wrong. Challenger Michelle McCullough did not take a clear stand.

Richard Gaytan did not respond to requests for campaign information, and The Bee was unable to reach Olivia Gonzalez.

With little discussion, trustees ignored teachers and canceled "Bless Me, Ultima" in February, three months after Superintendent Rick Fauss responded to a parent's complaint by removing it from a summer reading list. Critics object to profanity, sexuality, violence and attacks on Catholicism; supporters say it's a dynamic work that resonates with teenagers.

"I do not think this book was appropriate for 14-year-olds to read over the summer without a teacher's guidance," Alexander, who manages the Newman branch of the Stanislaus County Library, said in a Bee questionnaire. "There are many, many great books with more appropriate content."

Solano, a lifelong Newman resident who teaches physical education in Tracy, said, "I feel it is my duty to ensure that we are using appropriate works that enrich the education of our students." If objections arise, "I need to vote my conscience," Solano said.

The dispute struck close to home for McWilliams, who taught "Bless Me, Ultima" as an English teacher at Orestimba, where he also spent eight years as assistant principal before moving to a school in Patterson.

McWilliams addressed the board in December, saying the book prompted "important, honest discussions" with peers and parents "about racism, feelings of abandonment or isolation, teen suicide, living a life of hardship, what it means to become a man or woman, and genocide."

McWilliams told The Bee, "It was a book that all students related to and enjoyed. It had some controversial parts, but the overall theme and the connections students made with the book outweighed the sampling of profanity."

Wallace said he enjoyed reading "Bless Me, Ultima" and thinks it matches well with "demographics" of district students, more so than "The Great Gatsby," a book he read in high school.

"I thought 'Bless Me, Ultima' gives these students the opportunity to use literature to understand the world around them," Wallace said.

In a studio interview with Bill Mattos of Mattos Newspapers Inc., Wallace inadvertently referred to the book as "Color Me, Ultima" and criticized the board for giving little explanation for the ban and for limiting public comment.

McCullough said attention should have focused on how the book is used in teaching rather than its proposed removal.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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