By GREG KLEIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
The “winner” in the first round of the “great” “critical race theory” “debate” was apparently masks, coronavirus rules and perhaps the ability of a Facebook post to inspire passions on both sides and not just with its intended target.
The Fox News-style controversy over the teaching of American history to American students arrived at the Cooperstown Board of Education on Wednesday, June 16, in the cafeteria of the middle/high school on Linden Avenue just outside of Cooperstown in the town of Otsego.
More than 50 people spaced out through the cafeteria, at least a dozen mingled in both the hallway outside and in the parking lot, and 12 people spoke during the half-hour public comment session designed for members of the public to give feedback to members of the BOE. At least 20 people stayed through the tedium of an hour-plus long meeting to hear if there would be more discussion on the topic and awaited another public comment session, where two speakers addressed the board again on the topic of the moment in right-wing news.
There was no motion before the board to teach the theory, although the state Board of Education did recently launch an initiative that requires BOEs statewide to adopt policies and resolutions that affirm diversity, tolerance and inclusiveness.
Of the 12 speakers, only two expressed opposition to the teaching of whatever they defined as critical race theory and neither spoke directly about it.
Pete Russo, who also spoke at the end of the evening, mostly spoke about Marxism, and the Marxist idea that the worse aspects of capitalism were by design and not accident, drawing occasional laughter from the audience and an admonishment from BOE President Tim Hayes to the audience to not react in a way that harms the purpose of the open comment session. Russo did not wear a mask, leading Hayes to ask that speakers recognize that the school had different rules than other parts of society that are now dropping mask mandates.
Former Cooperstown Elementary School Principal Doug Geertgens mostly spoke about the state requirements and the issue of federal and state control of teaching standards. He said as an educator he objected to the idea that schools did a bad job teaching before and he did not feel there was an urgent need to address inequality in teaching or teaching standards now.
Geertgens was later overheard in the parking lot promoting a online article* that hypothesizes about the coming war between conservatives and liberals. He affirmed the war was coming.
Paula DiPerna also spoke twice, stressing the need for an honest teaching of history and warning the BOE that getting caught up in social controversies is a way to abandon its educational mission.
The remainder of the speakers discussed the need to teach history honestly, even the parts of American history that deal with racism and bigotry. While several of the speakers spoke about the definitions of critical race theory that seem to be motivating the debate, more spoke about parts of history they never learned in school, using the Tulsa Race Massacre and the causes of the Civil War as examples.
Occasionally, the messages were personal, such as when Cooperstown Central School graduate Sam Ross spoke about growing up gay in Cooperstown. Ross said he was still shaking with fear about speaking decades later as he recalled getting harassed in the cafeteria, sometimes even by school administrators and teachers. He said if CCS does not teach diversity and inclusion then it will create another generation of graduates who tremble with fear when required to speak their truth. He got hugs and pats on the back as he left the meeting, passing by the opposition group, unmasked and occasionally red-hatted.
The discussion began as a Facebook post in the group Hartwick Politics & Everything Else by Hartwick resident Bryan LoRusso, who is running in the Republican primary for town supervisor in the primary election Tuesday, June 22. LoRusso’s post asked anyone who wanted to discuss “the curriculum and school material being promoted regarding topics such as teaching of critical race theory, diversity, inclusion and sexual identity” to meet at his barn for a pre-meeting discussion and then attend and speak out to the BOE. The post reached its intended target as well as a much larger school community that organized to show up and tell the board its views, too.
LoRusso and several family members did sign in at the meeting and congregated, for part of the meeting in the lobby of the cafeteria and later outside the school. However, he did not speak, either because of time constraints, Hayes enforcing the mask requirement or other reasons. With 50 members of the public inside the cafeteria and another 10 or 15 people both inside the lobby and outside in the parking lot, there appeared to be about 75 members of the public at the meeting, with the LoRusso group making up a fourth or fifth of the total group.
Most of the meeting, the last of the 2020-2021 school year, dealt with end-of-year business, but Superintendent Sarah Spross did brief the board on the policy requirements and noted that typically state requirements come quickly, demand action and sometimes are a work in progress. She said ultimately the local BOE does have to comply with the state standards and pass a statement and approve policies that affirm that commitment to diversity, tolerance and inclusiveness.
* An earlier version of this story said Doug Geertgens was referencing a book he read. In a follow-up conversation, Geertgens said he does not ready many books and was likely referencing a website.