Pastor Tim Thompson of the evangelical 412 Church in Temecula, California, believes that the public schools in that part of southwestern Riverside County are “the devil’s playground.”
As someone who attended parochial school and then studied to be a priest for nine years, I have a passing familiarity with the images of Satan since my earliest years in school. So, when the pastor and his Inland Empire Family PAC successfully got a new school board majority elected to the Temecula Valley Unified School District Board of Education last month, I was eager to find out what might be going on in the fourth-largest district in Riverside County that could be attributed to the legendary Prince of Darkness.
This school district, like so many in our state, is an increasingly diverse, suburban district with 28,000 students, 60% of whom are now students of color.
The new leadership majority on the five-person school board was sworn in the evening of Dec. 13, and I arrived early to get a seat in the large crowd at the spacious and well-appointed Temecula Valley High School theater.
As is my custom as a veteran superintendent, I noted the presence of a security contingent that included both school district personnel and about eight to 10 Riverside County deputy sheriffs. I found an empty seat next to a smiling but apprehensive-looking suburban mom, who told me that she was there at the direction of her high school daughter, who had told her: “Mom, you adult voters messed up on Nov. 8, so you need to go to this meeting to find out how bad you really messed things up for us.”
Before the formal open session, students from throughout the district were recognized for their various accomplishments, including their work as elementary student council ambassadors. They looked positively cherubic as they proudly took to the stage to accept their certificates and shake hands or fist-bump with the superintendent and the board members. So far, nothing demonic at all about what I observed and no evidence of evildoing.
In addition to those remarkable young students, I was impressed with the superintendent, Jodi McClay, who made every effort to welcome and support this newly divided school board that she has inherited following a slanderous campaign of lies and distortions by someone who should know better — the same Pastor Tim Thompson, and his Inland Empire Family PAC.
After the ceremonial swearing-in of the newly elected board members, attention turned to substantive matters on the agenda. First up was the election of board leadership positions for both president and clerk. To no one’s surprise, the new evangelical majority elected two of their own to those positions on routine 3-2 votes.
The deep, tragic and visible polarization in this community was best reflected during the “public comment” agenda item, where vigorous cheering and booing took place based on which side one was on in this debate.
Speakers in favor of the new majority said things like: “The voters have put parents back in the driver’s seat, and these new board members will be advocates and guardians for the truth.”
Speakers against the new board members said things like: “I’m a hard-working teacher, not a groomer,” and a high school student who said: “We go to public school, not a Christian school. We aren’t here to see the world through the clouded lenses of Christian white supremacy. We want the truth.”
Even Pastor Thompson of the 412 Church, the man behind it all, showed up to welcome the new board majority and to remind everyone that “these new board members have the best of intentions for this community.”
This was a prelude to the main agenda items of the evening — two resolutions proposed by the new board president, Joseph Komrosky — one condemning racism in the district and the other banning the teaching of critical race theory, which examines the role of institutions in racism throughout history and is most often taught at the college level.
Again, speakers on either side of the issues performed amid boos, cheers and sign-waving. Komrosky made the remarkable and stunning false claim that his CRT resolution was borrowed completely from the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District in San Luis Obispo County where, according to him, “everything is fine after months of implementation.” In fact, an appointed conservative Christian school board member in Paso Robles was removed that same week, on Dec. 14, following a successful signature-gathering petition campaign. In the end, both of his resolutions passed on 3-2 votes with the new evangelical majority prevailing both times.
Much like the elementary students earlier in the meeting, the high school students won me over with their passionate, articulate and well-reasoned arguments for teaching the full, unvarnished history of race in America. It’s clear to me that they have been exposed to some outstanding teachers who have served them well. They instantly put me in mind of the youngsters I first encountered at both Dominguez in Compton and Long Beach Poly high schools more than fifty years ago as a young high school counselor with a big Afro.
Adults like those who make up the new school board majority in Temecula always underestimate the enduring power of the positive teacher/student relationship, and believe that they can issue edicts from on high that will be followed and adhered to because the voters have now put the “right kind of adults in charge.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I suspect the new evangelical board majority has a plan for how they’re going to implement their new resolutions in a divided and rancorous school community, but in the words of that great heavyweight champion and philosopher, Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.”
As a seasoned observer, I was not surprised to see that hundreds of high school students started peacefully protesting by walking out of class the morning following this vote of the board majority, and that it continued with more walkouts on Friday morning.
Carl A. Cohn is professor emeritus and senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate University. He previously served as the superintendent of Long Beach and San Diego Unified school districts. His research on the new and emerging politics of education in America is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
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