BENTONVILLE -- A group backing several Bentonville School Board candidates in this year's election is fighting what it calls "progressive activists" seeking to indoctrinate children, according to a flyer distributed by mail.
The flyer indicates it is paid for by The 1776 Project political action committee. The group describes itself on its website as dedicated to electing school board members nationwide who want to promote patriotism and pride in U.S. history.
"We are committed to abolishing critical race theory and 'The 1619 Project' from the public school curriculum," the 1776 Project website states.
Backlash at the group and its message came at Tuesday's School Board meeting, where 11 teachers and eight others -- mostly parents -- used time during the public comment period either to denounce the actions of the 1776 Project or to defend the work the district is doing. Two elementary school principals also spoke.
"The 1619 Project is not part of the curriculum at Bentonville Schools. Critical race theory is not part of the curriculum at Bentonville Schools," said Julie Griggs, who said she taught in the School District for 12 years before leaving her job last spring.
Griggs said she's listened to public comments at Bentonville School Board meetings since 2020 and could not recall a single speaker offer a specific example of a classroom issue related to critical race theory or the 1619 Project.
Critical race theory refers to a social science framework to analyze society and culture in terms of race and equity. The 1619 Project is an initiative of New York Times Magazine that aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative.
Griggs also addressed the concept of parental rights, which she said are protected by laws such as the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment and the Every Student Succeeds Act.
"Bentonville goes above and beyond the law to support parents' rights with open houses, communications, teacher websites, online curriculum overviews, Google classroom status reports and online access to every school library database," she said.
James Davis, an English teacher at Bentonville High School, said indoctrination is the exact opposite of what he and his colleagues are about. The purpose of learning is to ensure students reach a point they can think for themselves, he said.
Addressing his fellow educators, Davis said, "If someone has the guts to actually walk up to you and question you face to face about your class instead of attacking you behind your back on social media, then you should just hold your head high and tell the truth and tell them exactly what's going on, which is good stuff."
Leslee Wright, district communications director, provided a written statement this week on behalf of the district, saying, "We continue to fight baseless accusations against our teachers and staff. The current political rhetoric is rooted in fear, deceit and lies. The teachers in Bentonville Schools are second to none, and we will not allow them to be attacked by outsiders that know nothing of our day-to-day work."
The 1776 Project political action committee, which has a mailing address in Shirley, N.Y., reported spending about $2.8 million between April 1, 2021, and Oct. 19, 2022, according to financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
School board elections
There is a race for each of the five School Board seats up for election Nov. 8, with a total of 12 candidates running in zones one through five. Early voting is underway.
The 1776 Project flyer encourages people to vote for one candidate in each of the five races, what it calls the "pro-parent" ticket: Joel Dunning, Gail Pianalto, Matthew Smith, Tim Rosenau and Yoselin Bolivar.
Voters may cast ballots only in the race corresponding to the zone in which they live.
The flyer states the candidates supported by the 1776 Project will remove racial equity training for teachers, stop disciplinary actions based on race, support parental involvement in schools and get rid of pornographic books from the school libraries.
Aiden Buzzetti, 1776 Project head of coalition and candidate recruitment, said the group is supporting 40 candidates, including the ones in Bentonville, in the Nov. 8 election. It also endorses candidates in Texas, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and Indiana, he said.
The 1776 Project also got involved in Florida school board races in August where it backed 49 candidates and 71% of them won, he said. After that, the organization received more than 300 applications for support, he said.
Bolivar was the only one of the group's five endorsed Bentonville candidates who spoke at Tuesday's board meeting. She spoke only briefly about the timing of this week's evaluation of Superintendent Debbie Jones.
Pianalto said Thursday she is proud to receive the endorsement of Project 1776 and Moms for Liberty, another group with chapters in Benton County and elsewhere focused on parental rights at all levels of government.
Neither group is directly supporting her financially, she said.
Pianalto is running for the Zone 2 seat against Jennifer Faddis, the only current board member running for reelection.
Faddis, in a statement earlier this month to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said she wants to keep politics out of the School Board. The School Board should never be about a national political agenda, Faddis said.
Racial Equity training
Pianalto posted a video on her campaign Facebook page Wednesday in which she said she has "irrefutable proof" district administrators have been encouraging the training of critical race theory in the schools.
"Because of this, I've had many concerned teachers and others reach out to me to let me know they are extremely uncomfortable with this," Pianalto said. "I want to say right here and now, that is unacceptable."
Asked about the proof she had, Pianalto referred a reporter to Leah Knight, an area resident who provided documents showing the district sent some employees to training by the Racial Equity Institute in 2020. Candice Jones, who at the time was director in the Office of Culture, Diversity and Inclusion at Walmart, invited the district to participate in the training.
The institute describes itself on its website as "an alliance of trainers, organizers and institutional leaders who have devoted ourselves to the work of creating racially equitable organizations and systems."
Wright said Debbie Jones and a couple other administrators attended Racial Equity Institute training, and high school English and social studies teachers attended a separate training session. The district did not pay for it, Wright said.
Wright also defended the district's participation in the training, saying it didn't have anything to do with critical race theory.
A survey on the training was given to teachers who participated in it. The vast majority of participants gave it high marks, according to a summary of the survey. One English teacher remarked, "What I thought I knew (understood) underwent some changes after the REI training. It's a great reminder not to get stuck in the rut of self satisfaction, but to continue an eyes-wide-open approach to the life we've inherited from the past."
A couple of participants were less impressed. Wrote one social studies teacher, "I think it was one sided and definitely politically motivated. I felt uncomfortable and attacked."
Bolivar also has received endorsements from Project 1776 and Moms for Liberty but said she hasn't received financial help from either group.
Smith said he hasn't received donations from Project 1776 either.
Smith, in response to questions from the Democrat-Gazette, wrote in an email it's unclear whether the district has embraced critical race theory or the 1619 Project, but he listed a few points of concern to him: the district has a diversity, equity and inclusion committee; "a few teachers have been trained" in critical race theory; and there are stories of some teachers discussing pronouns with their students.
Wright, when asked for a response to Smith, said no Bentonville teachers have been trained in, nor does the district teach critical race theory, which she said is collegiate-level course work.
On the issue of pronouns, Wright said, "If a student makes a request to change his or her pronouns, that is handled with that student's family."
She said there is "tremendous confusion" around the work of the diversity, equity and inclusion committee, which she said was created in 2019 to respond to staff members' and students' differences, whether those have to do with culture or disability.
"Inclusivity is especially important for our special education population," Wright said. "Special education is probably our largest group who would identify as something other than the traditional student population."
The other candidates endorsed by the 1776 Project -- Dunning and Rosenau -- didn't return messages seeking comment this week.
Meet the candidates
Here’s a list of candidates running for each Bentonville School Board seat that’s up for election on Nov. 8. Visit https://bit.ly/3TSYYFs to see a map of board zones.
Joel Dunning, Erron Smith
Jennifer Faddis, Gail Pianalto
Jeremy Farmer, Blanca Maldonado, Matthew Smith
Becky Guthrie, Tim Rosenau
Tatum Aicklen, Yoselin Bolivar, Letisha Hinds