ABTF Chairperson Mark McLaughlin and Jasmine Esquilin voted against the book purchase. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A controversy that’s been brewing all year about the purchase of books by the town’s anti-bias task force for Riverhead school libraries may finally be coming to an end.

A majority of task force members present at a monthly meeting last night voted to support the book donation on the condition that the school district will accept the books.

Task force chairperson Mark McLaughlin and member Jasmine Esquilin voted against the resolution, which was moved by Harley Abrams and seconded by Marge Acevedo and passed 5-2.

Abrams advocated for the vote on the book donation, something the task force has done for the past two years. He responded to statements made at the October meeting of the task force.

“The books were chosen by the school librarians, not by the task force as was stated at the last meeting. The task force didn’t make any of the recommendations,” he said. “Also, the cost of the books was not the anti-bias task’s whole budget, just a small portion of it.”

At the October meeting of the task force, Council Member Ken Rothwell, the Town Board’s liaison to the ABTF, questioned how the books were selected and who selected them. Abrams told him the task force asked the school librarians for books they wanted to add to the school libraries, and that’s how the list was compiled. Rothwell said he thought some former task force subcommittee members had a hand in compiling the list.

Rothwell also questioned whether the ABTF’s entire budget should be spent on buying books for the school district —— which, he noted, has a multimillion budget and should be able to buy its own books.

Rothwell also said at the October meeting the reconstituted task force should make the decision about the book purchase. The previous members of the task force were “hold overs” whose terms had expired Dec. 31 last year and had not been reappointed by the Town Board, he said.

The Town Board on Sept. 6 appointed three new members to the ABTF and declined to re-appoint five existing members, including its co-chairs. It shrunk the size of the task force from 15 to 11 people. After that action, the member elevated to the position of chairperson, Noreen LeCann, resigned.

Rothwell said in an August interview the task force would be revamped because it lacked diversity. He stated, incorrectly, that it lacked a Spanish-speaking member and had no African American members. He also cited the number of “Caucasian women in the Democratic Party” on the task force — who, he noted, speak at Town Board meetings — as an example of the ABTF’s lack of diversity.

The October meeting was the first meeting of the reconstituted task force.

McLaughlin said at the October meeting he would call a vote on the book donation at the November meeting and asked task force members present at the October meeting to review the book list.

The list approved by the prior ABTF and submitted to the Town Board early this year, is segmented by school building (elementary, K-4, Pulaski Street, 5-6, middle school, 7-8, and high school 9-12) and includes reviews by organizations such as Publishers Weekly, the School Library Journal and Booklist, among others. It also lists the awards each book has received, if applicable, as well as a detailed summary of the plot, themes and subject matter of each book.

The members of the ABTF subcommittee who worked on the book donation program were all removed from the task force when it was reconstituted in September. They did not attend the October meeting, but the committee chairperson and one committee member were in the audience last night. Both spoke up.

Former ABTF member Rosemary Pearce, a retired school librarian who chaired the task force subcommittee for its book donation project, advocated for purchasing the books at the Nov. 20 ABTF meeting. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Rosemary Pearce, a retired school librarian and one of the ABTF members removed from the task force, chaired the ABTF book donation subcommittee. She backed up Abrams’ statements, explaining to the task force how the list was compiled.

Each of the school librarians compiled the list of books requested for their libraries, Pearce said. And the cost of the books would be nowhere near the entire budget of the ABTF, which was $3,000 in 2023.

“School librarians compile lists of books that enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion in their collections and get administrative approval of the list,” Pearce said in a guest column published by RiverheadLOCAL in September. “The ABTF subcommittee reviews the books, the ABTF approves the list and then the Town Board writes a resolution to approve the list and start the ordering process,” she wrote.

The 42-page book list, containing the descriptions and reviews, was never approved by the Town Board. (See the list below.) The board’s approval is necessary to authorize the expenditure of town funds.

“We waited all year,” Pearce said in an interview. “Then at the very meeting at which we were told the board would approve the expenditure, the board reappointed task force members, but did not reappoint the members of the book donation subcommittee.”

Pearce told the ABTF last night she believes the subcommittee members were not reappointed because of the work they did.

There was disagreement among the task force members last night about whether any portion of their budget should be spent on books, with some advocating for other ways to spend their very limited budget that might produce more results.

McLaughlin advocated waiting until the December meeting to decide.

But if the ABTF does not encumber the funds by the middle of December, they won’t be spent in 2023, said Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller, the police department’s liaison to the ABTF said. The funding won’t be rolled over into 2024, he said.

The Town Board’s adopted budget for 2024 reduced the ABTF budget line from $3,000 to $2,500.

McLaughlin said the school district’s new interim superintendent, Cheryl Pedisich, and the district’s community outreach director, Dr. Emily Sanz, told him in a phone call earlier in the day yesterday that the district is launching a new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program next month advised against purchasing books that might not be useful to the district.

Sanz is spearheading the district’s initiative to review the DEI plan adopted by the district in 2022 and will chair a committee of district officials and community stakeholders. The committee will use the district’s current DEI plan as a framework to assess how the district has or has not met its essential goals, according to William Galati, who briefly served as acting superintendent last month before Pedisich was appointed as the interim.

The DEI committee will outline the district’s “priority needs for professional development and reflection that will help ensure we meet desired DEI goals with fidelity and achieve outcomes that are positive, culturally sensitive and meaningful for our students and district stakeholders,” Galati said at the Oct. 10 school board meeting.

“It is our goal to share with the Board of Education and the community the committee’s findings and necessary upgrades to our District DEI Plan at a Board of Education meeting in the spring of 2024,” Galati said.

The ABTF last night agreed to participate in the school district’s new DEI committee.

Pearce said the school district’s DEI initiative should in no way impact the school librarian’s book choices. Those are two different things, she said.

Esquilin said she has reservations about the whether some of the books are age-appropriate — a concern voiced at the last meeting by new member Thomas Najdzion, who was not present last night. She also said the subject matter of some of the books concerned her.

“Would you want your children reading some of those books?” Esquilin asked ABTF member Roberto Ramos, when he said he supported the list.

“I think parents should decide,” Esquilin said.

In an interview after the meeting, Esquilin said she was concerned specifically with books that dealt with topics like same-sex marriage and transgender people. Some of the books she questioned were for elementary grades, she said. “I think it should be up to the parents.”

There are four books on the list that deal with sexual orientation issues. All are on the Riverhead Middle School library list: “Darius the Great is Not Okay,” “Daris the Great Deserves Better,” “The Lotterys Plus One” and “Ashes to Asheville.” There are no books on the elementary (K-4) list or the Pulaski Street School (5-6) list that have to do with sexual orientation-related issues.

In the end, with McLaughlin and Esquilin dissenting, a resolution approving spending ABTF funds on the purchase of the books in the list previously compiled and approved by the ABTF was approved, on the condition that the school district is still willing to accept the donation.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.