TEMECULA, Calif. — A Southern California school board has become the latest proxy for culture wars brewing across the country after a conservative bloc voted to formally reject state-endorsed curriculum that would have mentioned gay rights figure Harvey Milk.
On Tuesday, a heated Temecula Valley Unified School District board meeting dissolved into shouts and jeers as parents, teachers and community members confronted one another over a three-paragraph mention of Milk in supplemental materials for students in grades one through five.
At least three people were ejected from the five-hour hearing and escorted outside by law enforcement officers. In the parking lot, stickers in support of the far-right Proud Boys group mysteriously appeared on cars.
The controversy erupted in May when conservative school board members first rejected mention of Milk.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, responded weeks later, saying the state will buy the learning materials that include a short biography of the San Francisco civic leader.
“Cancel culture has gone too far in Temecula: radicalized zealots on the school board rejected a textbook used by hundreds of thousands of students and now children will begin the school year without the tools they need to learn,” Newsom said in a recent statement.
The Temecula school board president, Joseph Komrosky, who has called Milk a “pedophile,” said he has instructed the district to reject any materials shipped from the state.
California law requires that public school districts have enough textbooks for each student and that social studies curricula provide information on the roles that Americans from diverse backgrounds have had in shaping history. The school board has not approved replacement learning materials after rejecting state-endorsed curricula.
Turning school boards into surrogates for broader culture war battles is part of a familiar playbook deployed by conservative groups, which have focused on filling school boards with ideologically aligned members and clocked dozens of wins last fall.
In June, tempers flared outside a Glendale Unified School District board meeting in nearby Los Angeles County as members met to approve a measure recognizing Pride Month, something it has done for years.
Now, local conservatives see an opportunity to win more seats in places like Temecula and surrounding communities.
“California and the nation are watching this school board,” Tracy Henderson, founder of the conservative California Parents Union, told the Temecula school board Tuesday. “You need to stand your ground.”
But several parents and teachers are pushing for a recall of three school board members who have led the crusade against state-endorsed curriculum just six months after they took office.
“The social conversation that’s going on right now is just noise,” said Skylar Tempel, a Temecula resident and organizer of the recall effort. “This is turning our nonpartisan school board into a partisan platform.”
Tempel, a lifelong Temecula resident who attended the school district in his youth, said issue is drawing unwanted attention to the otherwise quiet community. He seeks a return to the California model of conservatism popular decades ago, which preached fiscal responsibility but steered clear of social issues.
Board member Steven Schwartz, a retired educator with more than 40 years teaching experience, said he has never seen anything like the ruckus that has overtaken meetings in recent months.
“I really don’t want to get to the point where someone comes in and says Lincoln wasn’t a good guy because slavery wasn’t ended soon enough,” he said. “History is history.”
Like many in the U.S., Temecula residents waded into culture wars during the pandemic after California officials implemented mask and vaccine mandates. Suddenly, mundane school board meetings became showdowns over whether students and parents should be forced to follow state health guidelines.
Groups like the conservative Inland Empire Family PAC, which has ties to a local evangelical church, emerged and backed conservative school board members across the region, including in Temecula Valley. All three conservative candidates endorsed by the political action committee were elected to the Temecula school board and soon the three members banned the teaching of critical race theory and ousted the superintendent.
Now, those same board members have rejected supplemental materials for elementary school students that mention Milk.
Proponents of the ban say Milk was a sexual predator, referring to a disputed claim that the gay rights icon had an inappropriate relationship with a minor. Opponents say changing the curriculum four weeks before school is scheduled to start would unnecessarily throw teachers’ lesson plans into turmoil.
The state attorney general has ordered the school district to provide information regarding its decision-making related to its rejection of the social studies curriculum for grades one through five.
Gia Rueda, a Temecula resident with two high-school aged children in the school district, called the three conservative members of the school board “chaos gods” who are bringing unnecessary attention to the community.
“The curriculum has already been vetted, piloted and approved by an overwhelming majority of actual TVUSD parents and teachers, so stop wasting money playing chaotic political games and stoking the fires of culture wars,” she said. “This never should have been an issue.”
But Tim Thompson, founder of the Inland Empire Family Pac and evangelical pastor at 412 Church Temecula Valley, which hosted U.S. Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene in 2021, said Milk “is not someone who should be celebrated.”
In Sacramento, Newsom and state education chief Tony Thurmond are supporting a bill that targets school districts that refuse to adopt state-endorsed curriculum. The bill would fine districts for failing to provide textbooks that align with state rules, including learning materials that teach “inclusive and diverse perspectives.”