Board’s bigotry, censorship and incompetence revealed in firing of Kansas town’s librarians | Opinion

It used to be you could get fired from a government job for being too prejudiced.

Now, in Sterling, Kansas, you get fired for not being prejudiced enough.

Last week, the town’s Library Board sacked both the library director, Kari Wheeler, and her top assistant, Brandy Lancaster.

Their offense? They didn’t cater enough to the board’s anti-LGBT agenda.

According to the former librarians, the friction started with a dispute over whether to shelve one of the books in the William Allen White Reading Program, which happens to include a gender-nonbinary character.

Each year, the program publishes a list of award-winning books for the elementary and middle-school levels. It’s a big deal in a lot of school districts and there are often rewards for reading the entire list.

When my sons were in school, the reward was a field trip to Emporia to see White’s former office at the Emporia Gazette and learn about the revered newspaperman, who won the Pulitzer Prize, rubbed elbows with presidents and was one of the leading voices for middle America from the late 1890s into the 1940s.

Wheeler had a donor who offered to buy the library the entire set of William Allen White books for this year. One of the selections is “Flight of the Puffin,” a novel including a nonbinary teen character who lives on the streets after being shunned at home.

A board member told Wheeler to go ahead and order the books, but to hide “Flight of the Puffin” in her desk drawer and not check it out to anybody.

It’s an order no librarian worthy of the title would ever follow.

The rainbow incident seems to be the last straw.

In a small display case at the entry to the library, Wheeler and Lancaster were putting together a diversity display when Library Board Vice President Michelle Miller showed up and laid down the law: No rainbows, because they’re associated with LGBT rights.

Now, neither of the rainbow images for the display case had anything to do with that.

One was a collage of a girl in a wheelchair sitting in front of a rainbow and the other was the international symbol of autism awareness, a rainbow-colored infinity symbol.

In a June 22 board meeting that Lancaster recorded, Miller explained her rationale, such as it is: “I do not want any kind of rainbow display . . . especially in this month. We are in Pride Month. People are on display. We have a conservative town and as a library, do not need to make political statements like Target and Bud Light.”

While we’re at it, maybe we should change the unofficial theme song of this state to “Somewhere Over That Thing We Can’t Talk About ‘Cuz It’s Too Gay.”

And speaking of Bud Light, many of my conservative friends were rejoicing online yesterday at the news that the boycott over the brand hiring a transgender influencer is forcing the closure of two glass factories that make Bud Light bottles.

The factories, which aren’t owned by the beer-maker, are in Louisiana and North Carolina. Modelo, a Mexican beer, has taken over from Bud Light as the No. 1 beer in the United States.

So the Bud Light backlash just destroyed 600 blue-collar jobs in red states and is creating jobs in Mexico. Hard not to see the irony there.

I spent Monday afternoon in Sterling and found myself dealing with one of the most insular, secretive and generally incompetent government bodies I’ve ever encountered.

I had to go there in person because Sterling’s mayor, Bob Bolt, who serves on the eight-member Library Board, hung up on me as soon as I introduced myself. The president, vice president, treasurer and secretary of the Library Board didn’t return phone calls.

One board member chewed me out for calling her six weeks after she lost her husband — although I had no way of knowing that and she had participated in the special Library Board meeting where the librarians were canned.

Of the two board members willing to give me the time of day, neither would tell me how they or anyone else voted on the librarians’ firings — citing executive privilege — although under state law the vote is required to be public and is a matter of public record.

I asked for the Library Board’s budget, to see where they get their money and what they do with it. It turns out they haven’t done a budget for years and there’s no way to tell what they’ve been doing with the $60,000 or so they get from city taxes each year, plus state and nonprofit support.

The city government owns the library building and allocates the bulk of the money to run it. But that’s about the extent of its involvement.

The board is largely self-appointed. Members decide who they want on the board with them and the mayor trots the names over to be rubber-stamped by the City Council.

Given the process, it’s not hard to see how this became the Book Ban of the Month Club.

Board members serve four-year terms. I asked who they answer to for their decisions and the answer I got was “the state Constitution.”

The state Constitution was unavailable for comment.

So I’ll just quote Lancaster instead: “It’s total abuse of power, it’s discrimination and it’s bigoted and we need a change.”

She’s not wrong.

Board members say they fired her and Wheeler because they’d lost confidence in them.

They’ve got some nerve. If anybody in this sorry scenario doesn’t inspire confidence, it’s the board members.

The only things they seem to be good at are censorship, clandestine decision-making and stonewalling.

They fail miserably at the open-mindedness, transparency and stewardship of public funds that community members should expect from the people running their library.

A local citizen, Samantha Corwin, has launched a petition to try to reinstate the librarians. It’s got about 200 signatures so far.

William Allen White’s most famous editorial was about how Kansas was falling behind the rest of the country in population and wealth, because back in his day it was run by a bunch of ignorant “clodhoppers.”

The piece was titled, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

Ask me that today and I’d give you a one-word answer.