“We cannot understand [Fascism], but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard…because what happened can happen again…For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”
What happens when bad politics, homophobia and xenophobia undermine the best intentions for children? Unfortunately, I saw this happen in a tiny village in upstate New York.
Let me backtrack a few years. In 2018 I was invited by Larry Leaven to do professional development in the Hong Kong Dalton School. At the time, Larry was the director of the school. It was a fascinating week. Most exciting for me was spending time in deep conversations with an educational leader who truly cared about children and about supporting their curiosity, creativity and their participation in a caring community. Larry and I talked and talked. We talked after we visited classrooms, during lunch and in the evening over dinner. It was an incredibly stimulating week for me.
When Larry returned to work in the US, he accepted the job as superintendent of schools in Florida, NY. It’s a small village, mainly known for black earth and onions. The school district only consisted of a high school,a middle school and an elementary school. After he initially visited classes at the elementary school, Larry was certain that I could be a good learning support for the early childhood teachers. He wanted me to spend a week each month at the Golden Hill Elementary School and to introduce Choice Time and inquiry-based learning to the kindergartens, first grades and second grades. Truthfully, I was not keen on traveling upstate and staying in a hotel overnight. However, I could feel Larry’s passion for the possibilities of developing an inquiry-based, joyful learning environment and couldn’t resist.
This was during the heart of the pandemic and it certainly wasn’t the best time for teachers. What I saw when I first visited the school were very bare rooms, no evidence of student work on the walls, tables for children far apart. The principal seemed obsessed with walking around the school with a yardstick, measuring the distances between desks and yet she proudly told me that she was a healthy woman and didn’t need to get vaccinated!
It was, at first, unclear where to begin. However, I was introduced to a lovely, bright and interested teacher who was not working in a classroom that year. She was interested in collaborating with me and we walked around the school and discovered a room that was not being used as a classroom. It could be a perfect set-up for a Choice Time Lab room. Larry approved and gave us a budget for setting it up. Linda Shute, the teacher who would now be the Choice Time facilitator, and I spent a lot of time planning and reflecting. We did this in person when I came to the school for my monthly visit, on Zoom and via texts and emails. We talked about what might take place in the Choice Time room how to set up the room and mainly how to let the children understand that this was their place for play and investigation.
At the same time I worked with the teachers, individually and mainly during grade meetings. We made plans for tweaking their thematic studies so that they could become more inquiry-based, giving children more agency in how the investigations would develop. I realized that the teachers were trying out something quite unfamiliar to them. I was impressed with how they were willing to try out a new way of teaching and also how they brought their own ideas and knowledge of the community and natural environment into their work.
Supported with my guidance and encouragement, and Larry’s enthusiasm for our project, Linda turned a dismal, empty room into a vibrant space where children could happily play, socialize and investigate.The room as we first found it.
Getting the room set up for children.
Children covered the locker doors with their self-portraits. This was their room!
Very soon, the room bustled with children’s explorations.
Now, to update you on what happened in this sleepy hamlet of Florida, New York after Larry Leaven was there for a few months, I’ll share an article from an April 13, 2023 edition of the Hudson Valley News.
FLORIDA, N.Y. — Tracy Stroh was thrilled when she learned that Larry Leaven was going to be the new superintendent in this tiny Orange County school district.
Stroh, a longtime resident of the village of Florida, had two kids in district schools, and a family member who knew Leaven in Buffalo, where he had previously worked, had told her fantastic things about him. A chance meeting shortly before he was to start work in August 2021 was encouraging — she was relieved as Leaven told her about his positive reception from the school board and faculty.
Still, she had some concerns.
“I did feel a quiet, deep-down sense of worry that the political climate here wouldn’t be kind to him because he happens to be a gay man, in a same-sex marriage, something he never felt the need to keep hidden, nor should he, nor should anyone, anywhere,” Stroh wrote on her blog.
A little over a year later, her worst fears had come to pass. Last November, Leaven resigned as superintendent in the face of consistent harassment from a small but vocal group of parents and community members, several associated with the right-wing organization Moms for Liberty.
Nearly six months on, questions linger about the circumstances of his departure. Leaven’s supporters have argued that he was effectively forced out by the school board, particularly by three new members — Rob Andrade (now the board’s president), Lori Gorcsos and Leslie Hill — who were elected last year on an anti-Leaven platform and whose campaigns were funded by individuals associated with Moms for Liberty. Supporters have continued to demand justice for the ex-superintendent, while also warning of the potential for this to happen in other school districts.
Leaven’s tenure in Florida
Leaven, who has more than 30 years of experience in education — including founding the Dalton School in Hong Kong — became superintendent in August 2021 of the Florida Union Free School District, which serves about 850 pre-K-12 students in the village of Florida and nearby towns of Goshen and Warwick.
Florida has a population of about 3,000 and is situated in Orange County’s famed Black Dirt Region, known for its rich soil and onion fields, about 60 miles northwest of New York City. Its political leanings trend conservative — the village went about 55-45 percent for Donald Trump in 2020.
While many in the Florida school district, like Stroh, welcomed Leaven, he almost immediately began to face sharp attacks from several community members by email, in local media like the Warwick Valley Dispatch and Warwick Watch, and probably most viciously, on Facebook.
Leaven has described these attacks as smears. “Every single decision that was made in the district was put out in these (Moms for Liberty-affiliated Facebook groups) and was twisted,” he said. “I can only fire back so much, and I’m not going to jump online with this stuff.”
In many ways, the attacks mirror those roiling school districts nationally: demands to ban books like “Gender Queer” (a graphic memoir by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe), accusations of anti-white and anti-Christian bias, and accusations that Leaven misused federal funds by giving professional development contracts to friends, an allegation he has called completely baseless.
Some critics accused Leaven of a lack of transparency or authoritarian tendencies, arguing that it was pushing educators out of the district, but Stroh said this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“(Leaven) was an extremely accessible person who would talk to anyone about anything,” she told the Times Union.
Stroh and others say it was Leaven’s sexuality and perceived liberalism that triggered the backlash. A record of the harassment shared with the Times Union — including screenshots, emails and media clips — shows that many of the online attacks were overtly homophobic.
One local resident wrote in a Facebook post: “If it were not for the Plandemic lockdowns, we would not know that a homosexual Marxist superintendent is perverting the minds and morals of the children in the Florida Union-Free School District …”
Another suggested in a post in a private Florida-focused Facebook group that Leaven had been banned from Hong Kong for sexually abusing children: “This is what happens when a Western ‘educator’ in Hong Kong who quickly garnered a reputation for extra attentiveness to small boys ‘suddenly’ flees Hong Kong and sidles into a small, rural school district …”
While these comments were among the most extreme, Leaven and his supporters say that the most persistent harassment came from several Florida parents who are associated with the Orange County chapter of the group Moms for Liberty.
Moms for Liberty was founded in Melbourne, Fla., in 2021. It describes itself as advocating for “parents’ rights” but is known nationally for spearheading right-wing attacks on public schools and LGBTQ teachers and students. It has received critical attention from prominent civil liberties organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Southern Poverty Law Center — the latter has referred to it as a “radical parent group” — and it appears to have close links to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has publicly voiced support for the groupand appointed one of its co-founders to a governing board overseeing Disney World’s district.
The 2022 education board election
Leaven has emphasized good working relationships in the district, including in his resignation statement. But his supporters say the Florida school board election in May 2022 radically reshaped the context of his tenure.
In that election, three new members — Andrade, Gorcsos and Hill — were elected to the five-person board. The three ran together as “Team Florida” in a campaign obviously directed at Leaven.
One campaign flyer read: “The curriculum that has been forced on our public schools prioritizes lowering academic standards and indoctrinating our children through divisive programs like Common Core, Critical Race Theory, and Social Emotional Learning. … The parents of our community know what is best for our children and we oppose efforts to use our community’s public schools to push destructive social experiments on our children.”
Other material was even more explicit. A packet delivered to all voters in the district prior to the election included a flyer that read: “The parents and children need your support to elect new members that reflect a more conservative and traditional approach to education in our village. … For the past 12 months there has been an effort to radicalize and indoctrinate children in a culture that is both shocking and highly promiscuous.”
Attached was a flyer elaborating on the differences between “Traditional vs. Progressive Learning,” characterizing the two “types” as “Traditional (Classical)” and “Progressive / Marxist.”
(This is a flyer Leaven says was distributed at board meetings by a parent associated with Moms For Liberty)
The packet also included a column from the Warwick Valley Dispatch by “guest columnist Marilyn Young” (an asterisk noted that the newspaper does not necessarily endorse the commentary). It reads as an interview with a Florida resident named “Adam,” who claims to be leaving the district due to Leaven. “The School Board needs to get Leaven out of his position before he does permanent damage,” Adam tells Young. “I think the School Board should fire the Superintendent immediately.”
Andrade, Gorcsos and Hill did not respond to questions about their campaign or their relationship with Leaven. But an expenditure statement from the election, obtained by FOIL request, offers insight into their candidacies — while also raising questions.
Each of the three candidates lists the same six contributions to their campaign. All six donors are members of a private Moms for Liberty group on Facebook, to which the Times Union was able to obtain access.
The largest donor, Gayle Young, who donated $854 to each of the three candidates, is the same Marilyn Young who wrote the editorial the candidates included in their election packet, according to Leaven. Young also advocated prolifically on behalf of Team Florida in the same private group around the election last year.
Potentially complicating matters, the accuracy of campaign expenditure reports is not entirely clear. The three candidates — who filed virtually identical forms — each reported total expenses of $1,740. That number is the sum of their itemized expenses and itemized contributions, but it’s not clear how the contributions were spent or whether they were made to the candidates individually or “Team Florida” as a group.
Andrade, Gorcsos and Hill also did not respond to multiple inquiries about their campaign finances, and Young did not respond to a question about her contributions.
Whatever their financing, the new board quickly came into conflict with Leaven. At a July 28, 2022, special meeting, the board took up a motion to terminate several professional development contracts that had been negotiated and signed by the previous board, which had been funded with American Rescue Plan money.
According to the minutes of the meeting, the purpose of the motion was “to remedy the more urgent health & safety issues the school district needs to address.” But Moms for Liberty members had repeatedly accused Leaven of impropriety with the contracts — which he has denied.
At the meeting, Leaven apparently disagreed with the board; according to the minutes, he said: “Removing programs will hurt students. … It is rare to have these funds available for programs. It is an opportunity to grow together.” (Leaven said he stood by his comments from the meeting; Andrade, Gorcsos and Hill did not reply to a question about why they terminated the contracts.)
The motion passed unanimously. After the meeting, Leaven only remained in the position for about four months, announcing his resignation on Nov. 10.
Despite a substantial turnout at a school board meeting the following week to protest his departure, Leaven’s exit was welcomed by the Orange County Moms for Liberty chapter. A Facebook post from Nov. 10 reads: “Take your pornographic indoctrination back where you came from. This is what happens when you mess with our children in OCNY.”
A national issue?
Karen Svoboda, president of the Dutchess County-based nonprofit Defense of Democracy, an organization that advocates for inclusive public schools, sees what happened to Leaven as part of a pattern of conservative school boards targeting superintendents across the country. Her organization has compiled a list of several dozen similar cases, ranging from California to Florida to North Carolina to South Carolina and beyond.
In addition to circulating a petition demanding the resignation of the new Florida school board members, Svoboda has also helped publicize what Leaven’s departure is costing the district: $300,000, which includes the costs of securing Leaven’s position, his separation agreement, interim support in the role and retaining a consulting firm to conduct the search for a replacement, according to a February news release from Defense of Democracy. (As of publication, the school district had not confirmed these costs.)
Stroh is also disturbed by the expense. “It is an enormous cost in a small village,” she said.
Tensions around Leaven’s resignation erupted at the Feb. 16 board meeting, where Stroh was one of several community members who criticized the board and asked questions about the ongoing search for a new superintendent.
“You forced the resignation of an excellent superintendent with a stellar CV,” Stroh said. “You did this not only because he’s openly gay, but also because he was clear on his goal to help us create an equitable and safe environment for all students regardless of skin color or sexual orientation or gender identity or any other differences.”