Outgoing Riverside District 96 school board member Jeff Miller addresses the board and faculty at his final meeting on May 5 at Ames School in Riverside. (Riverside TV)

Last week was teacher appreciation week, and at its May 4 meeting the Riverside Elementary District 96 Board of Education unanimously approved a proclamation thanking teachers for their work. 

But that’s not why approximately 60 Riverside District 96 teachers and paraprofessionals, all dressed in red shirts, were at the meeting.

They were there for a silent protest of comments made by outgoing school board member Jeff Miller to the Landmark 11 days earlier for a story about a staff member and a kindergarten student at Hollywood School testing positive for COVID-19 within a day of each other. 

The staff member worked with the kindergarten students and Miller told the Landmark that staff who have not been vaccinated should not be interacting with students and had a moral obligation to get vaccinated. The teachers, and the teachers union, called the Riverside Education Council or REC, were also angry that the Landmark learned that the staff member who tested positive had not been vaccinated against COVID-19. 

When Miller made his final comments at the school board meeting, after his replacement had been sworn in, some teachers and paraprofessionals walked out of the room.

Six days before the school board meeting, the union leadership called for Miller to immediately resign from the school board even though he had less than a week remaining on his term. 

On April 28 REC co-president Katie Kayastha, the student services coordinator at L.J. Hauser Junior High School, fired off an email to the Board of Education and Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye calling for Miller to resign and expressing the union’s anger that a district official had told the Landmark that the staff member at Hollywood School had not been vaccinated.

“While staff members have been encouraged to get vaccinated, there are any number of reasons why one may not be currently vaccinated at this time,” Kayastha wrote in the email which was obtained by the Landmark obtained through a public records request. “Until such time that it is mandated, employees have the right to choose whether or not they receive the vaccine.”

Kayastha noted that teachers had taught students in person for months before vaccines became available at the behest of the board of education.

“In-person staff were in our schools with children and other staff members for five months without being vaccinated,” Kayastha wrote. “To make this remark when convenient is irresponsible.”

Kayastha said that since the Landmark story appeared multiple teachers have been asked by students whether they have been vaccinated. Staff were also upset that it seemed to be assumed that the staff member infected the child while noting that it could have been the child who infected the staff member.

“In reality, there is no way to concretely determine a point of origin,” Kayastha wrote. “To make statements like this have made a difficult situation considerably more difficult. No person should have their trust and confidence violated in this way.”

Union members were instructed not to talk to the press during the protest and the union co-presidents were very tight lipped.

“We’re just here as members of the District 96 community,” said union co-president Jen Ohlman, a second-grade teacher at Ames, when asked why all the teachers were at the meeting.

No union members made any public comment and the union leaders, who were not in room where the meeting took place, did not address the board.

Miller and Hunt responded to Kayastha by email the day after receiving her email. Both offered some apologies. Hunt apologized on behalf of the district and the school board.

“Although the ‘District 96 official’ who revealed the vaccination status of an employee is not named, it is clear that private information was shared inappropriately,” Hunt wrote in his email to Kayastha.

But Hunt also defended Miller and noted his extensive service during his six years on the school board.

“It goes without saying that his opinions are his alone and not necessarily those of the rest of the board,” Hunt said. “That said, I do support his right to share them with the community.”

In his own email to Kayastha and during his more than nine minute-long final statement to the board and community after leaving the board on May 4, Miller apologized for the wording but not the content of his comments that were quoted in the Landmark.

“I chose my words poorly but I stand by the message of what I was trying to say, and what I just said, which is that we have a special responsibility in schools right now to either get vaccinated, for the sake of the staff, for your own benefits, and for the sake of the students basically so as not to incur any transmissions in the schools,” Miller said. 

Miller said he respected the bravery teachers showed earlier in the school by coming to school and teaching in person before vaccines were available.

“During the biggest wave of the virus during the winter and fall, it took a lot of courage for our staff members to come to school,” Miller said. “I really admire that courage and dedication.”

Miller said that he does believe that those who work with students have a moral obligation to get vaccinated if they can do so.  

“The availability of the vaccine imposed, and imposes, a social responsibility on all of us to get vaccinated,” Miller said. 

Miller’s board colleagues heaped praise upon him as he left the school board after six years. Miller served as school board president for his first four years and came on the board at time when former Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, who had a difficult relationship with some board members, was leaving the district.

“Six years ago, when we entered the board at the same time, we were in dire need of some leadership you really stepped up into a tough position that took a lot of your time and a lot of your energy, and you were completely dedicated and put the district first all the time,” said board Vice President Lynda Murphy.

Hunt pointed out that Miller, a physicist by training, developed on his own the algorithm that the school district now uses to assign students to schools.

Miller was known for his intelligence, thoughtfulness and the deep research he did about issues facing the district. He was never afraid to challenge administrators or vendors.

He urged a later start to the day at Hauser because research shows that adolescents have trouble going to bed early and do better when the school day doesn’t start so early in the morning. The 8:30 start time has worked well this year and is being continued next year.  

Ryan-Toye, while noting all the folks in red who were unhappy with Miller’s comments, also praised the outgoing board member.

“I know that this has been a challenging week in particular and it’s certainly unfortunate to see you depart in sort of the midst of a bit of a cloud, but I do want to certainly thank you for your integrity and your intellect and your transparency and your honesty and your mentoring and your leadership, and it’s been very much appreciated,” Ryan-Toye said.