The Anti-Bias Task Force at its meeting Dec. 18 in Town Hall. Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead Town’s book donation to school libraries celebrating diversity and inclusion remains in limbo, despite having the support of a majority of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force.

The Town Board did not adopt a resolution on Tuesday approving the purchase of the books and the donation, the last chance for it to authorize the spending of a portion of the town Anti-Bias Task Force’s budget before the end of the year. 

The donation of books, which were chosen by school librarians to fit the theme of diversity, equity and inclusion, was requested by the Anti-Bias Task Force at the beginning of the year, before its membership — and leadership — was altered by the Town Board. But the board did not authorize the expenditure and, after the group’s reorganization, the donation stalled — despite previous approval by the school district.

At the November Anti-Bias Task Force meeting, the group voted 5-2 to approve the book donation on the condition that the school district would accept the books. The new ABTF chairperson, Mark McLaughlin — a recent addition to the group — said prior to the vote school officials told him the ABTF should not buy the books because the district was about to relaunch its diversity, equity and inclusion committee and the DEI policies might change. McLaughlin was to request confirmation from the a school administrator he’d been in contact with. He and member Jasmine Esquilin voted against the action, which was proposed by ABTF member Harley Abrams.

Anti-Bias Task Force Chairperson Mark McLaughlin and member Jasmine Esquilin at the Dec. 18 meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis

Monday night, McLaughlin said he had not heard back from the official he had contacted about the donation. He said the task force to send another letter, this time to the new school district Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and the new interim school superintendent, asking for opinions about the book donation.

McLaughlin said he joined the school district’s new DEI committee and that he’s “sure that the DEI committee is going to want to take a vote on the books as well.” The task force membership voted unanimously to send the letter proposed by McLaughlin to the DEI committee and the interim superintendent.

McLaughlin said he sent the book list to the district’s director of social emotional learning, English as a new language, special programs and community outreach, Emily Sanz. McLaughlin said Sanz had told him the district “didn’t want to say yes to books that they’re not going to use.”

Sanz did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment. She also did not respond to a request for comment after the November meeting.

Rosemary Pearce, a former task force member who led its book donation subcommittee, shared an email chain between herself, as the leader of the subcommittee for the book donations, and school district humanities director Maria Casamassa — who oversees the district’s library program — showing that the district had previously approved the task force’s book donation. She said administrative approval was the condition that the Town Board has required the task force have before approving the donations.

“This is going back to March,” Pearce said. “So we’ve had two approvals from two separate Anti-Bias Task Forces to approve the list. And you have an approval [from the district].”

“So your comment about the books not being used, is completely misguided. Because books in a library are there for the use of the students, the teachers, and even the librarians within their own classrooms on an ongoing basis,” Pearce said. “They’re not just bought and left on the shelves, particularly related to DEI and particularly related to the issues that the district and the town is facing regarding issues of bias.”

During the November meeting and last night’s meeting, ABTF members worried that if the task force didn’t use the funds it had in the 2023 town budget, the money would be lost. Police Department liaison Chief David Hegermiller said the 2023 funds must be “encumbered” by the middle of December in order to be counted as a 2023 expenditure. The funds would be encumbered by a Town Board resolution authorizing the expenditure.

“That’s what my motion was for last meeting,” task force member Abrams said.

But the Town Board did not act on the book donation expenditure during Tuesday’s meeting, the last meeting of the year. That means the funding allocated to the ABTF in the 2023 budget is lost.

Council Member Ken Rothwell, Town Board liaison to the Anti-Bias Task Force at the group’s Dec.18 meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis

Council Member Ken Rothwell, the Town Board liaison to the ABTF, said during Monday’s meeting he would support carrying over the group’s 2023 budget into 2024.   

“It’s not typical that we carry over committee money year after year, but because there has been a delay at this point — clearly a delay — that I would certainly consider and I would advocate for other board members to consider retaining the money from this year to still utilize it,” Rothwell said.

After Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, Rothwell said funds in the town budget can’t be rolled over from year to year. Any unspent funds go into the town’s reserve fund. To spend them in the following year, the Town Board has to pass a resolution transferring funds from the reserve to a budget line. Rothwell said he would be willing to sponsor a resolution to do that if he has the support of two other Town Board members.

Also during Monday’s ABTF meeting, the group discussed how it wants to proceed with “Food Unites,” a hosting community event McLaughlin pitched focusing on the foods of different cultures. Rothwell previously suggested the event be held in the town square, along the lines of the World Showcase at Epcot in Disney World. Members also discussed possibly starting the event on a smaller scale by making it a walking tour of restaurants around town or highlighting one particular restaurant and culture every week.

It was also decided the group would participate in the school district’s Black History Month event. McLaughlin said the group would do a “harmony session.” Rothwell suggested the group select prominent Black residents of Riverhead to honor at the event.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com