On February 10, local conservative radio host Rob Schilling posted a photo of a Black History Month poster from Cale Elementary School on his blog, with the headline “Fomenting dissension at Cale Elementary.” Three days later, Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Matt Haas left a comment agreeing that the poster was causing dissension among students, and said it was coming down that afternoon.
That decision—and the response to Schilling before the school community was officially notified—angered many Cale parents, teachers, and staff, along with other local residents, several of whom came to the February 27 school board meeting to express their concerns.
Cale teachers Lori Ann Stoddart and Katie Morgans read a collective statement signed by 33 teachers and staff at the school, some choosing to sign “X” instead of their names out of fear of being fired.
“Matt Haas’ actions have done harm to the teachers, students, and families of the Mountain View/Cale Elementary community,” Stoddart said. “People of color within our staff, student body, and families feel demeaned and disrespected by the removal of a poster that contained nothing but historical fact and was used as instructional material for teachers in our school.”
The poster, written in colorful letters on yellow laminated paper, read: “Dear Students, They didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, etc. and made them slaves. Sincerely, your ancestors.” It was based on a poster Jovan Bradshaw, a teacher at Magnolia Middle School in Mississippi, created for her classroom for Black History Month last year.
Both in his comments on Schilling’s blog and at the meeting, Haas agreed that the poster’s message was “true and compelling.” But he said because the school’s Black History Month committee did not plan an academic program for the poster, it “spawned destructive confrontations between students who obviously lacked the mature perspective to understand the intent of the message.”
Although the same poster was put up in the school’s cafeteria last year, and didn’t cause any issues, Haas said at the meeting that this year’s poster was bigger, and placed outside the school’s main office, where it was much more visible.
He said about a dozen staff members reported to Cale Principal Cyndi Wells that the poster was “divisive,” and caused disagreements among students. Wells called him, he said, to discuss the issue and, after conferring with the school board’s legal counsel and Phil Giaramita, ACPS’ strategic communications officer, they decided to take the poster down.
In addition to not providing an “age-appropriate context” for the poster, Cale’s Black History Month committee, which includes about a dozen teachers, did not receive approval to put up the poster from Wells, who became principal last July, Haas explained. Stoddart and Morgans believe that Haas unfairly blamed Cale’s teachers.
“By abruptly removing the poster and falsely claiming that Mountain View/Cale teachers were not using the poster instructionally, Matt Haas robbed our school community of the opportunity for learning about and understanding each other,” Stoddard said during the meeting. “When Matt Haas could have led our school and our county in a bold conversation of our shared past, he chose instead to pander to those who did not want our community to evolve.”
Cale parent Tannis Fuller was particularly displeased with Haas’ communication about the poster’s removal. She said that on February 13, several hours after Haas left his comment on Schilling’s blog, she received a vague email from Wells about the poster, but nothing from Haas.
“Am I to understand that Haas found it more important to assure a community not affected by the poster that the poster was coming down, than to assure the faculty, staff, and students of Cale that he had their backs?” Fuller asked. “To whom is Matt Haas accountable? The readers of the blog or the faculty, staff, and students of Cale?”
Haas, however, did not view his comments on Schilling’s blog as problematic.
“If I’m made aware that someone has posted something about the school system on their site, whatever I communicate I’m going to put it on that site. I also did it on the Hate-Free Schools [Coalition of Albemarle County] Facebook page,” he said. “That’s just what I do.”
Hate-Free Schools member Amanda Moxham emphasized that the poster needed to be put back up, and encouraged the school to have a discussion with students about the controversy surrounding it.
“These are the conversations that need to be held at a young age so that when our students get to high school, they’re not combating each other over these ideologies,” Moxham said.
Following public comment, Haas admitted he “often makes mistakes, especially in terms of my communication style,” and offered a formal apology. But he added that “we all need to take ownership,” and said “there was more that the school staff could have done prior to using the poster to set the stage for a positive dialogue and outcome.”
Cale’s Black History Month committee is currently working with the school’s administration, as well as with Dr. Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent for school community empowerment, to determine what to do next. Hairston has also met with some African American parents at Cale, who suggested that “with the proper support and context and information, the poster could be [put] back on display,” Haas said.
“I support that…and I think that would be a great next step,” he said. “Someone might say, ‘Well, it’s too late because it was a part of African American History Month.’ But I would also say that it’s not one month out of the year…that’s part of reframing the narrative.”
Correction 3/6: the Hate-Free Schools member who spoke at ACPS’s School Board meeting on 2/27 is named Amanda Moxham, not Maxhom.