In 2022, Hoover City Schools scheduled award-winning author Derrick Barnes to visit three elementary schools.
But just before Barnes’ scheduled Black History Month appearances in February 2023, the invitation was abruptly rescinded.
Initially, the school district referred to a “recent change” and said Barnes had failed to provide the information needed to offer a contract.
Later, Hoover Superintendent Dee Fowler acknowledged that Barnes had, in fact, offered some of the requested information, but not all. The cancellation came after a parent complained about Barnes’ visit and his “controversial ideas”.
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The offer and cancellation come amid national efforts to restrict or ban certain books and subjects in many schools. The Alabama state board of education banned the teaching of divisive topics in 2021, including teaching that one race was superior to another, but it did not ban any book titles. Last year, state officials said they received reports from people who believed scheduling Black History Month was the same as offering a critical theory of race.
This year, state lawmakers want to go further and make it illegal to teach “divisive” subjects in K-12 and high school.
“I’m not sure what happened,” said Barnes rep Patrick Oliver, saying discussions and arrangements for the February visits went “extremely well”.
“The email [canceling the visit] it caught me off guard.”
Oliver said this was the first cancellation Barnes has encountered where no explanation was given.
“This guy is quite controversial”
Gwin Elementary School librarian Jennifer Northrup first reached out to Barnes and her team about a potential visit in April 2022.
“I know of at least three schools interested in having him give three presentations in Hoover, Alabama. We have 11 primary schools, so we may be able to book it for the whole week! We are looking for dates for Spring 2023,” he wrote in an email.
Barnes agreed and the two began fixing dates and details before a trip.
The Kansas City author has won Caldecott and Newbery Awards for his children’s books, including ‘Crown’, ‘I Am Every Good Thing’ and ‘King of Kindergarten.’ He is the only author to have won the Kirkus Prize twice. His books typically feature black children.
Then, recently, Fowler said one of the elementary school principals was contacted by a parent who said some of Barnes’ previous social media posts contained controversial ideas.
It is unclear which post or ideas the parent objected to.
On Monday, January 23, district officials reviewed the correspondence with Barnes and realized there was no definitive contract with the author.
Records show Barnes’ rep Oliver was asked for a contract twice, once last April and once in August.
“This guy is quite controversial and therefore a contract would be absolutely necessary,” Fowler said in an interview.
Oliver said he corresponded regularly with school officials and believed he had provided the documents Hoover needed.
School officials have decided to suspend the visit.
According to emails obtained through a public records request, Northrup sent Oliver an email at 5:58 pm on January 23 canceling the visit.
“Unfortunately, we have had a recent change and will not be able to host Mr. Barnes as guest author for the three school visits planned in February,” he wrote.
Later that evening, Barnes posted on his Instagram account that his visits had been canceled “out of the blue.”
He said he believed politics were to blame.
“This has got to stop,” reads Barnes’ post. “Children are short-changed, and the livelihoods of children’s book authors suffer substantially.”
His spokesperson added that February is a busy time for the author and such a short cancellation represented a missed opportunity.
“During this time of year, Black History Month, Black authors are extremely busy,” Oliver said.
Initially, two different teachers told parents on Thursday, Jan. 26, that Barnes had canceled a visit to Hoover’s schools. A parent told AL.com an email from a school librarian also said Barnes canceled the visit. Chief academic officer Terry Lamar said the information was incorrect because it was Hoover Schools that canceled the visit, not Barnes.
These clarifications contradict the school district’s initial statement on cancellations, which referred to the contract issue.
Each parent-teacher organization at Hoover Elementary had agreed to help pay for a portion of the author’s visit.
Even elementary schools had already sent notices to families and included links to buy books for Barnes to sign. Some parents told AL.com that they have already purchased Barnes books for their children.
Fowler said proper financial procedures relating to the author’s visit were not followed.
Chief Technology Officer Brian Phillips said Gwin’s principal reached out to Barnes’ rep on Wednesday and offered to cover some of the costs due to the short notice about the cancellation.
Fowler told AL.com that Hoover Schools paid Barnes $3,800.
The original agreed fee was $3,300 for each of the three schools – or $9,900 total – for Barnes to show up at each school four times. The fee included travel expenses.
Barnes is still scheduled to speak at the Hoover Library on February 7th.
He was also scheduled to visit Alabaster’s Meadow View Elementary on Feb. 10, spokesman Jason Gaston said, but that date is now up in the air.
The school district says it is working with Barnes to find a time to visit.
“As far as we know, he’s still with us,” the abbe said.
Updated 8:50am 01/28/2023 to correct the number of presentations from six to four.