Story by Kyle Ocker. 

OTTUMWA — The Ottumwa Community School District released a list of 30 books Thursday they plan to remove from the district’s offering in response to new legislation which goes into effect in January.

The list was made public Thursday afternoon following days of requests from The Ottumwa Courier. District officials had denied to provide it initially, and then on Thursday the district’s superintendent Mike McGrory said on “Dialogue” with Ellis Codjoe, Ottumwa Radio’s morning show on KBIZ 1240 AM/102.7 FM, that officials had planned to release the list in January.

The district chief information officer Landon Allen reiterated those remarks later on Thursday, and then followed up by sending the list to the Courier a few hours later while apologizing for the “confusion.”

Making up the list are the following 30 books:

— “Nineteen Minutes,” by Jodi Picoult

— “Sold,” by Patricia McCormick

— “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green

— “Identical,” by Ellen Hopkins

— “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Eleanor Atwood

— “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky

— “Crank,” by Ellen Hopkins

— “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker

— “The Kite Runner,” Khaled Hosseini

— “Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher

— “Water for Elephants,” by Sara Gruen

— “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie

— “Tricks,” by Ellen Hopkins

— “A Court of Mist and Fury,” by Sarah J. Maas

— “A Court of Wings and Ruin,” by Sarah J. Maas

— “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison

— “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley

— “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison

— “Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Pérez

— “Perfect,” by Ellen Hopkins

— “Breathless,” by Pam Withers

— “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” by Erika L. Sánchez

— “Breaking Dawn,” by Stephenie Meyer

— “Damsel,” by Elana K. Arnold

— “The Female of the Species,” by Mindy McGinnis

— “1984,” by George Orwell

— “Lawn Boy,” by Gary Paulsen

— “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews

— “Lucky,” by Alice Sebold

— “What Girls Are Made Of,” by Elana K. Arnold

The book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” made local news last year when an Evans Middle School parent had challenged the book. The district’s reconsideration committee and the district school board had opted to keep it in the seventh grade curriculum at the time.

Born from Senate File 496 in the most recent legislative session and dubbed the “parental rights” law, legislators included a mandate on school districts to remove books that fall within certain categories deemed inappropriate. Specifically, the law bans books and materials that are not age-appropriate, or contain descriptions or visual depictions of sex acts beyond materials used for human growth and development curriculum. The law also included several other provisions not related to books.

Schools have until Jan. 1, 2024 to comply with the law. No provisions in the legislation bar districts from releasing a list of books being removed due to the law, but the law also doesn’t specifically require a list be made public.

The topic was on Monday’s Ottumwa school board agenda, where Allen said 30 books were identified to be removed. At the meeting, he did not provide a list nor state whether or not the district planned to release it. Board members did not ask questions or make any comments during his presentation.

Allen did, however, point out that board members may “find interesting” that state law does not require the district to create records they don’t already have. “Meaning, we are not required to track every book that was removed,” he said.

He also mentioned that because the district already regularly “weeds” books from the shelves for many factors, including age, condition and how often they are used, individuals seeking to know which books are being removed due to Senate File 496 would be unable to do so by simply comparing the district’s book inventory year over year to determine which titles have been removed.

On Tuesday, a Courier reporter contacted Allen twice by email to ask for a list. Rather than sharing a list, or the district’s plans to do so eventually, Allen said the district welcomed public involvement in the process and invited them to challenge books they find objectionable. He did not respond to a reply email.

The Courier followed up Allen’s remarks with a public records request Wednesday to McGrory and the district’s communications director seeking the list, as well as emails related to Allen’s handling of the process, to try to gain more insight.

On the “Dialogue” program Thursday, McGrory appeared to attempt to change the district’s course and for the first time said publicly the district had originally planned to release the list of books in January once the law’s enforcement period began.

“Once the law was enacted, that’s when we were going to send out ‘here’s the books,’” McGrory said. “So, we never had any intent of not releasing the name of the books.

“As a district, we’re always striving to be transparent. So, I don’t know why people would think we would choose the books that we’re removing, and then not release the names of them. So, we will here shortly.”

Allen replied to The Courier’s public records request Thursday afternoon stating the district would release the list in “a timely fashion.”

On Thursday morning, McGrory also received correspondence from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a statewide nonprofit that pursues government transparency. The Ottumwa Courier is among the council’s funders.

In the letter, the council’s director Randy Evans wrote to express his disappointment in the district’s initial refusal to release the list of books.

“I recognize you may believe providing the list of books being removed from the Ottumwa Community School District is inconvenient or embarrassing,” Evans writes. “You may believe some provisions of S.F. 496 are not in the best interests of students in your district. You may believe the legislation represents a serious erosion of the concept of local control of Iowa’s public schools.

“But trying to obscure the intent of Iowa’s public records law through this charade of ‘there is no list’ is a shortsighted strategy that represents an abuse of the spirit of Iowa Code Chapter 22 (the open records law).”

Evans’ letter also included an additional request for public records related to the situation.

Kyle Ocker is the editor of the Ottumwa Courier and the Oskaloosa Herald. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, and on Threads @Kyle_Ocker.

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