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Sullivan commissioners question cheerleader 'word art' atop poem

Rick Wagner • Oct 19, 2019 at 9:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — If you’ve heard a rumor going around about Sullivan County’s sixth-grade curriculum requiring teachers to distribute a poem and accompanying graphic denoting “boobs” on cheerleader stick figures, the only place the Kingsport Times News has  been able to find it publicly distributed is on the Facebook page of an elected official and in public comments by another.

“Word art” depicting “cheerleaders” (figures made up of words, including “boobs” across the figures’ chest areas and “air” where their head should be) and a poem accompanying it are not supposed to be used or handed out to Sullivan County sixth-grade English students, Sullivan County School officials have told the Times News.

But the poem and image of the art is making the rounds as “curriculum” on a county commissioner’s Facebook profile and in comments from another commissioner in a public meeting Thursday night.

County Commissioner Angie Stanley recently put up a Facebook post about the “cheerleader” graphic that went with a poem titled “Pep Rally.” In her post, Stanley claimed it is part of the sixth-grade English language arts curriculum in Sullivan County Schools. The post drew long and disagreeing posts about the source of the image and poem. Stanley posted that she got it from an upset mother of a sixth-grader.

“This just got sent to me by a concerned/mad momma...This is what our students in Sull Co are learning in 6th grade ELA (English, language, arts)!!!” Stanley posted at 2:54 p.m. on Oct. 12. (That’s a verbatim quote, punctuation and abbreviations unchanged.)

At issue is “Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems,” which includes “Pep Rally” by John Grandits. Selected poems from the book are used in sixth-grade English classes. Specifically, Stanley posted a photo of the “cheerleader” graphic, which Director of Schools David Cox called word art, above the poem.

“This particular poem was not ever intended to be used,” Cox said. Instead, he said the poetry book is a teacher resource, not curriculum. “The publication is meant to be copied. It has a poem on each page.”

Cox said he will meet Monday with principals to be sure all schools and teachers are on the same page with not sharing that poem and added that each class has about five copies available but poems used are photocopied.

WHAT’S THE IMAGE?

The word art shows stick-figure type representations of three cheerleaders. In addition to the aforementioned words, the stick figures are composed of “stupid little skirt” printed to outline a shape, and “pom” several times where hands should be, and “ridiculously tiny waist” in the form of a torso area. The poem is a lament of a student who doesn’t like going to pep rallies and said the events do not make the student peppy. It does not mention breasts or airheads. The word art is an illustration for the poem.

At the Sullivan County Commission’s monthly meeting Thursday, Commissioner Herschel Glover mentioned the poem and word art, saying it would be taught in sixth-grade English starting the first day students return from fall break, which is Monday.

Stanley was out of town for Sullivan South High School volleyball tournament play and did not attend the commission meeting.

In a statement sent to the Times News late Friday via Facebook Messenger, Stanley said the material “was not given out or viewed by students.”

“Before posting the image and poem,” Stanley continued, “I confirmed with both faculty members and members of the Board of Education that the poem and illustration was legitimate. While there has been conflicting reports about the number of copies provided to teachers and its intended use, the fact remains that it is in the classroom and included in the book with upcoming teaching materials.

“Per current student handbook guidelines, a student drawing an image of this nature could be suspended for bullying. If it’s inappropriate for a student to do on their own at school, it’s inappropriate to teach. I believe parents, teachers, and faculty would agree that we all want what’s in the best interest of our children and that includes examining and correcting, when necessary, our curriculum choices.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Glover asked, “Is anyone in this county aware of what these teachers have been given to teach lately? The school board did not have this information. They did not know this was handed out in the schools. But this is in a sixth-grade book.”

Glover then described the stick figures.

“I find this offensive. I’m ashamed to even talk about it.”

Glover said his granddaughter is a cheerleader and he could imagine how she would have felt if she had seen the graphic  when she was in sixth grade.

 “This is what they’re asking our teachers to teach,” Glover said. “Enough is enough, guys. Come on.”

“Nobody thought this poem would be appropriate to use with kids,” Cox said. He said teachers were told to use and hand out three poems from the book, not including this one.

“I don’t think it is appropriate,” Cox said. “They’re not handed out to students.”

WHAT ABOUT RAISES?

Glover mentioned the poem while talking about his resolution, on the first of two readings, asking the Board of Education to increase employee raises from 2%, as proposed by the school board and approved by the commission Thursday night, to 3% without any additional funding from the commission. Glover wants the school board to dip into about $10 million in unrestricted fund balance to pay for the raises.

The commission approved the 2% raises, which Cox said should appear on November paychecks for employees as well as back pay for the fiscal/school  year.

Cox said school officials would love to give an extra raise to employees but that it would be financially irresponsible to use the unrestricted fund balance, one-time money that when it is spent is gone with no promise of being replenished, to cover an ongoing expense like pay raises. He said the school system once had to borrow money and pay $30,000 in interest on that loan just to make the payroll at the beginning of the school year, before property tax revenues started flowing into county coffers.

Commissioner Joe Herron suggested amending Glover’s resolution to make the 1% a one-time bonus instead of a pay increase. That means it would not automatically recur each year. 

“I can’t speak for the school board,” Cox said. “But I feel like if the school board thought it could fund 3% it already would have done that.”

Board Chairman Michael Hughes also said funding an extra 1% from fund balance would not be financially responsible.

Each percent raise costs about $750,000, and Hughes said since the commission last year stopped funding a $1.6 million annual appropriation for maintenance and renovation the school board needs the reserves for those one-time expenditures.

Staff writer J.H. Osborne contributed to this article.

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