ROWVA Board accused of not hiring teacher due to her statements supporting challenged book

·6 min read
Seth Huizenga spoke to ROWVA Board members during a special meeting Tuesday about his wife Tara Huizenga not being hired by the board for a high school art position. Tara Huizenga says administrators offered her the job, but the board rejected that recommendation.
Seth Huizenga spoke to ROWVA Board members during a special meeting Tuesday about his wife Tara Huizenga not being hired by the board for a high school art position. Tara Huizenga says administrators offered her the job, but the board rejected that recommendation.

ONEIDA — A part-time ROWVA elementary art teacher who applied for an open high school art position says the ROWVA School Board wouldn't approve the administration's recommendation to hire her because she doesn't align with board members' views.

Specifically, Tara Huizenga in January spoke out against the board's decision to remove a challenged book, "The Hate U Give," from high school English classrooms. Based on what then board president Jim Haynes said was a board consensus Nov. 15, 2021, he directed the administration remove the book from the classroom due to "controversial language." The board brought the issue back up in January for an open discussion, after which it voted 4-2 to keep the book out of the classroom but to allow it in the school library. Huizenga and several others spoke at that meeting.

Banned book: Did ROWVA board discuss challenged book in private? Attorney General's office is reviewing

Tara Huizenga
Tara Huizenga

Since that vote the two board members who opposed the book ban — Rob Kalb and Melissa Shepherd — and another who was absent the night of the vote, Haynes, have resigned. On March 21, the board appointed Amber Fleming, who spoke for banning "The Hate U Give" at the Nov. 15, 2021, board meeting.

Heather Godsil and Emily Bean were appointed to the ROWVA board April 18. Eleven people applied for those two final board seats.

For seven years, Huizenga taught elementary school art part-time in ROWVA through a grant provided by the ROWVA Public School Foundation. In addition, the district had contracted her as a remote learning tutor. She resigned both of those positions on Friday out of frustration with the school board.

A mother of a ROWVA senior, 7th grader and 5th grader, Huizenga says she felt connected to the students in the district and was ready to take on a salaried position. When the high school art teacher job became available she interviewed for it Feb. 28.

More: What happened in ROWVA? School board splinters over masks, transgender issues, book ban

According to Huizenga, on March 4 High School Principal Adam Seaney offered her the job. Elementary School Principal Kerry Danner was also present, Huizenga said.

Huizenga was not approved by the board at the March 21 meeting, however. Instead, she said Seaney and Danner met with her per the board's suggestion.

"They were to 'talk to me about my behavior." They were not certain what 'behavior' was in question, but I agreed to continue being professional in my work, and continue to not speak poorly of individual board members," Huizenga told The Register-Mail.

During the March meeting the board's four members — Scott Lake, John Kuelper, Matt Johnson and Ryan West — were joined by new member Fleming for the closed session to talk about personnel.

On the morning before the April 18 board meeting, Huizenga said she met with Danner and Superintendent Joe Sornberger, who warned her of the possible outcome.

That night at the April 18 meeting, the board again did not hire Huizenga, and the job has been reposted.

Why didn't Huizenga get the job?

"I believe there is a coordinated attack on anyone that does not align with their views," Huizenga said. "I have been open about my thoughts on censorship in a public school. I am supportive of all students no matter their race, sexual preference, or gender identity. Because of my views, I am seen as a threat to the school they want. They have fought against state mandates, against supporting our trans students and race-related education."

Board President Scott Lake said in an email Tuesday the decision had nothing to do with Huizenga speaking at the January board meeting.

"It was not in response to speaking at the January board meeting," Lake wrote. "The open comment section of our board meeting is open to any member of the community, parent, student, or employee. We have had a number of employees speak during the open comment section of our board meeting over the past year."

Neither Sornberger nor Seaney have replied to questions about whether they recommended Huizenga for the position. Both Sornberger and Seaney have taken positions elsewhere and will leave ROWVA June. 30.

More: ROWVA High School principal approved for job in Galesburg School District

"I would have liked to have been treated with even a small amount of respect and told why I was not hired despite my recommendation," Huizenga said.

The ROWVA Board met Tuesday in a special meeting to go into closed session with Thomas Leahy from the Illinois Association of School Boards, likely to discuss superintendent candidates.

Seth Huizenga becomes angry as he speaks to the ROWVA School Board Tuesday night. Two Knox County sheriff's deputies arrived 15 minutes or so after Huizenga and Christy Gerard questioned why the board didn't hire Tara Huizenga to an open art teaching position.
Seth Huizenga becomes angry as he speaks to the ROWVA School Board Tuesday night. Two Knox County sheriff's deputies arrived 15 minutes or so after Huizenga and Christy Gerard questioned why the board didn't hire Tara Huizenga to an open art teaching position.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Seth Huizenga (Tara's husband) and Christy Gerard both told the board of Tara Huizenga's qualifications and aired their frustrations that she wasn't hired.

Seth Huizenga raised his voice from the start and spoke for five minutes. Board members listened as Huizenga said he trusted members of the administration, but not the board.

"I have three honor students! I have been disgraced! You humiliated my wife ... I have teachers in this school tell me they are afraid of you. I'll tell you one thing. I look at you and I'm not scared or intimidated by you in the least!"

Then Gerard spoke past the five allotted minutes. Toward the end she became impassioned.

"It's because of the lack of transparency from this school that I can only guess why you won't hire her. 1. She spoke on behalf of the book "The Hate U Give." That's her right. She gets to say that.

Lake reminded Gerard that her 5 minutes of speaking time were nearly up.

"And I'm going on. That is her right and I want to remind you that she never did anything hateful or spiteful after you boys got your way. She openly disagreed with the board ... get over it."

Lake thanked Gerard, letting her know her time was up. "We're finished. Thank you."

Gerard kept speaking, raising her volume while the board moved and voted to go into closed session.

"Whatever reason you didn't hire her, shame on you. What an incredible loss for our district. ... I have told my children to address bullies head on, and I am. Stop it! Stop it! Stop being a bully, stop hurting the teachers, stop hurting my friend, stop lying about her and stop micromanaging our teachers. You are not qualified to educate. You know nothing! Shame on you!"

The board then walked past Seth Huizenga and Gerard on their way to the room used for the closed sessions. Looks were exchanged.

About 10 minutes after the board went into closed session, two deputies arrived and sat in the back of the open session room with school administrators. About 15 people attended the meeting.

This article originally appeared on Galesburg Register-Mail: ROWVA teacher says her speech against banning a book cost her the job