A crowd of roughly 100 people gathered at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church Tuesday night to brainstorm ways to refocus the Conway School Board’s attention on education, rather than on banning books and passing rules about where transgender students can use the bathroom.
Two police officers were on hand should any major disruptions or violence take place, and organizers suggested people not walk alone to their cars after the event ended. The caution was no doubt a reaction to an incident earlier this fall when a man struck an ally of the LGBQT community after she left a heated school board meeting.
Speakers included Rev. Greg Warren, rector at the church that sits across the street from Conway Junior High School, and Julie McDonald and Julie Adkisson, both Conway residents active in civic affairs. The group is to be known as Save Our Schools Conway. Warren said he was there as an individual but that the church was supportive.
The trio took turns encouraging residents to attend school board meetings even if there’s not room for them to sit in the school district’s fairly small meeting room. They also encouraged residents to consider running for two school board seats that will be up for election on May 9.
One of those seats is now held by Jennifer Cunningham, who joined other board members in voting to force transgender students and adults to use the restroom that coincides with the gender on their original birth certificate or to request access to a single-use restroom. She also supported a decision to ban two books, both about transgender young people. The other board seat is held by recently appointed member Bill Milburn, a retired police officer who has made it clear he’s in tune with the current board’s agenda.
The audience applauded when McDonald announced that the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas had notified Conway Public Schools that it is considering legal action against the district.
Warren pointed to a chart showing that Conway High School’s grade in a statewide report card fell from a B to a C since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the nation. He said Conway Junior High School fell from A to B. While other districts such as Bentonville have managed to get their students’ grades back up, Conway still lags, he said.
“Less than 50 percent of our students are going to college,” Warren said. He said that’s not good enough for a the “city of colleges,” a nickname for the home of the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College.
Warren said the school board’s solution to the academic problem has been to focus on bathrooms, book banning and other politically charged issues rather than education. “We’re bringing knives to a gunfight,” Warren said.
ACLU of Arkansas attorney Gary Sullivan sent a letter to the Save Our Schools Conway group about the possibility of working together.
“We are actively monitoring the situation in Conway and are evaluating how we can provide advocacy to the cause and whether to file any lawsuits,” Sullivan wrote. “This is a slow process as we do not want to rush into any legal action without completely weighing all of the pros and cons.
“Please help us to better support you by letting us know if you reach a consensus on which issues your group is interested in pursuing. We have identified at least two issues that may be violations of the Freedom of Information Act. Other issues with the Conway School Board involve the banning of books and the bathroom/overnight lodging policies for transgender students. You may have other issues and we want to hear about them too,” Sullivan wrote.
McDonald advised the crowd of their right to attend public board meetings and what to do if they are forced to leave. No matter whether the person decides to leave or is wrongly arrested for refusing to leave a public meeting, McDonald suggested people record any such events as did Julee Jaeger, a parent who was recently forced to leave a public school board meeting for no apparent reason. Try to get others to attend with you and encourage them to record such events as well, McDonald said. It’s OK to leave, but “call the ACLU either way,” she added.
Speakers tonight also encouraged people to support teachers who they said are under stress and afraid of retaliation if they express their disapproval of the board’s actions. One woman who said she is a school district employee shared that some school administrators are dismissing objections to the board’s actions as coming from “crazy liberals who do not live in Conway.”
Said another woman, “Save our students from the lack of achievement that’s happening. Save our students from the discrimination that’s happening.”
Also speaking briefly to the group was Jess Disney, who said she is a transgender lesbian and has plans to run for the school board.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX News and is published from a syndicated feed.)