Hermon High School in a Dec. 14, 2022, file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Hermon Town Council on Thursday approved spending up to $6,000 to survey residents’ support for a policy that would identify books with sexual content in the town’s three schools. The vote was 4-3.

The cost of the survey, initially estimated at $5,000, was increased after town staff determined expenses would be $5,883 including printing, envelopes and postage to send the survey to every registered voter in Hermon. The survey would not be sent to residents of Levant and Carmel. Students from those towns attend Hermon High School.

The controversy began when parents expressed concern over a display of LGBTQ books in the high school library in late 2021. Over the past year, a group of parents has organized and advocated for the school committee to implement a policy that would identify library books that contain sexual content, but would not remove or ban them.

One of the concerns about the policy was that it would lead to an outright ban, but supporters say they just want to make sure students don’t have access to books containing sexual content without parental consent.

The question approved to be asked is: “Do you support age-appropriate content standards regarding erotic, explicit sexual, and pornographic imagery, including written explicit content, to be used for instructional and library materials within the Hermon school system?”

Town Manager Joshua Berry and School Superintendent Micah Grant may revise it, according to the resolution that authorized the survey.

Councilors Steven Thomas, Danielle Haggerty, Richard Cyr and Ronald Murphy voted to send out the survey. Councilors John Snyer, G. Stephen Watson and Derek Wood voted against the proposal.

About 40 people attended the meeting. The majority expressed support for the survey.

Grant said that the survey was unnecessary as steps are being taken to address parents’ concerns. He said that librarians are preparing a list of “controversial books.” That list would allow parents to read the book or seek out information about it so they can decide whether their children should read it.

Grant also said that from 1996, when Hermon High School opened, until 2016, its library served the community. The superintendent urged councilors to ask residents if they wanted to go back to that, but the council only approved the one question about the sexual content standard.

Haggerty, who was elected to the council in June and has spoken in favor of content standards, said Thursday that some residents who support adopting the policy were afraid to speak publicly for fear of backlash.

“We want to make sure that their voices are heard. This allows for that,” she said.

Wood, who also was elected in June and spoke in favor of content standards at last week’s school committee meeting, opposed spending the money for a survey, in part, because he campaigned on fiscal responsibility by the town.

“I don’t think the result of this survey will make a change in how the school committee feels about this issue,” he said. “In six months, we can debate the issue with the school committee again. I think we should prepare to discuss this again in six months.”

Once the survey is completed, the Town Council could make recommendations based on the results, but under Maine law the school committee is not required to implement them.

All the council can do is recommend to attendees at the June town meeting a different amount of funding for the budget than the school committee recommended.

That is what happened last year when the council endorsed a budget $100,000 less than the school committee proposed. Voters narrowly agreed with the council.

The idea for the survey came from a resident at the council’s Jan. 5 meeting, which occurred prior to the school committee’s vote on Jan. 9 not to screen library books for sexual content.

Brian Veneziano, who supports including screening for sexual content of library books in the policy, told councilors that he believes a majority of residents agree with him and the group Concerned Hermon School District Community Members.

The group identified more than 80 books it claims have sexual content in the school libraries. All but one of the books were found in the high school library. One was in the middle school library.

Veneziano said after Thursday’s meeting that he was pleased with the action the council took.

“I am confident that the results of the survey will reflect the community’s support for establishing age-appropriate standards,” he said. “Establishing these standards will allow parents to make informed decisions about what material their children should access.”

Veneziano said he hopes the survey will compel the school committee to respect the concerns of parents. “Parents are eager to work with the school committee in a respectful and constructive manner,” he said.