A two-year effort to select reading materials for students in Park County is now stalled after critics, including many with ties to the local Tea Party, alleged the writings promote a liberal agenda.
That agenda, they say, includes discussion of global warming and a disproportionate focus on the stories of minorities.
Supporters say the reading materials contain knowledge students need to succeed in today’s world. Some worry conservatives have too much influence on the school board.
The controversy comes after an 18-member committee spent the last two-and-a-half years studying texts for students from kindergarten through high school.
In the end, members proposed the adoption of roughly $300,000 worth of materials, including texts from Pearson, the education behemoth, and reading programs from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a Boston-based publisher.
Aligned to the controversial Common Core State Standards, the readings cover a variety of subjects including global warming, evolution and race. Material for high school students also focuses on British, American and contemporary literature.
Some community members — and Park County School District 6 board members — take issue with the proposed materials, arguing that the readings promote "junk science" and offer a "one-sided" view of historical events.
Many opponents of the readings, such as trustee William Struemke, are active in the local Tea Party.
Struemke said the materials presented "a very liberal, very slanted view of the world." He complained that stories within the texts are disproportionately about minority groups and that he would like to see more "white leaders" included.
"I've never liked excluding greats just to have a certain race or sex in a book," he said.
After some teachers and parents spoke out in support of the materials, trustee Scott Weber responded by criticizing the fact that the readings promote the idea that global warming is real -- a fact most scientists agree upon.
"I do not think our students should be reading about 'junk science' created by a failed politician," he wrote.
"As a board member, I will NOT authorize any of the $300,000 allocated for this purchase to include supplemental booklets about 'global whining' ... Our Wyoming schools are largely funded by coal, oil, natural gas, mining, ranching, etc. This junk science is against community and state standards," he concluded.
On Tuesday night, hundreds flocked to the Wynona Thompson Auditorium in Cody for a school board meeting, where dozens of community members discussed the reading materials. The majority spoke favorably.
The nearly seven-hour meeting's public comment period ended with former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, a Republican, who stressed the importance of teaching students the less flattering parts of the country's history.
“Unless you show the warts, you can’t prove how you got here,” the former senator said in a Wednesday interview.
Simpson, a Cody High School alumnus, also addressed global warming.
"If anyone believes that there isn't climate change and global warming, they’re wrong. I think it’s critically important that nobody leaves this school district thinking global warming isn't real."
Originally, the board was supposed to vote on the proposal during the meeting, but after nine people filed 42 formal complaints, members followed a school district policy that mandates that a committee be formed to address the complaints.
The board plans to meet June 1 to select committee members.
Some of the complaints mirrored the opinions of the more conservative faction of the school board.
Bill Tallen, active in the Tea Party, complained that the readings "misrepresented" and "exaggerated focus on minorities."
With regard to a third-grade reading discussing Hawaii, he argued that the text's emphasis on Polynesian culture would lead students to think that no Americans inhabit the island.
He also expressed concern over the treatment of global warming as settled science.
Marjorie Tallen criticized the texts for a lack of emphasis on radical Islam's role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mariah Stephens, a junior who is graduating early from Cody High School and has her eyes on several prestigious colleges and universities, has a hard time understanding the reasoning of those criticizing the reading materials.
She thinks the conservative faction has lost its grip on reality and has hijacked the school board.
"Because these total Tea Party activists are older and mostly white, they don’t quite understand what is going on in the world," she said, later clarifying that she was specifically regarding their understanding of applying to college, getting jobs and technology.
“And so it’s difficult for me to understand how they have the most power over something that’s not really their issue," she added.
Stephens thinks students should help steer the issue. She’s bothered that a board, for whom most students can't vote, is elected to make decisions for them.
"Students should have the biggest say in it because it regards us," she said.
Ultimately, she worries that if students aren't exposed to these ideas that they will be unprepared for college and life ahead.
The district's superintendent, Ray Schulte, hopes that Tuesday night's meeting does not reflect a new norm for the district.
If it takes "months and months" to buy books, Schulte worries that other decision making could be delayed as well.
If so, "the system is going to bog down under the weight of bureaucracy," he said.