The Fresno Unified School Board meeting was abruptly and prematurely ended Wednesday night after opponents of a recent controversial tweet by Board Clerk Veva Islas clashed with her supporters, several of whom then verbally attacked Trustee Terry Slatic.
Late Wednesday night, Trustee Keshia Thomas called out Islas for failing to take responsibility for her tweet. Islas, who has reprimanded Slatic over his “shortcomings and inappropriate behaviors,” should take ownership of her own, Thomas said in a text message.
“Accountability is accountability!!! Tonight was truly embarrassing and students were not the center of this board meeting!!! No matter what we do in the community, if it is not backed up by our word and actions, are we abiding by our moral duties and standards as elected officials?”
Tweet at the Center of the Storm
Numerous speakers, some armed with homemade posters, called for Islas to resign over her tweet last week calling it a “win” if unvaccinated men who are infected with COVID-19 are temporarily infertile.
Many of them had previously come before the board seeking to have the district end its support for vaccination pop-up clinics at school sites and not to implement a vaccination mandate for children that has been proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But Islas’ tweet added fuel to their ire.
Critics Say Tweet Was Hurtful
Several people, riffing off of Islas’ Twitter handle, @VivaciousVeva, called her “vicious” for seeming to celebrate anti-vaxxer’s ability to reproduce, even temporarily.
The critics included Andrew Fabela, a candidate for the Fresno High Area 5 Trustee seat. Fabela said the tweet was harmful to people like himself and his wife, who had struggled for years to have a child before their daughter was born.
As resident Cindy Harris spoke, she noticed Islas smiling and shaking her head and told Islas, “Stop that.”
When a verbal scuffle broke out between a vaccination opponent and an Islas supporter at the back of the board room, Board President Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas called the first five-minute recess of the meeting. When it resumed, she reminded the crowd of the need to maintain civility and to respect speakers’ at the podium.
Comments from the public resumed after a discussion of future school calendars and budget proposals for the 2022-23 school year.
Support for Islas
A half-dozen speakers said they were in support of Islas for the hard work and dedication she has shown, not only to the school district as a trustee for McLane High Area 4 but also as a public health advocate who has worked tirelessly to bring vaccinations to rural parts of the county.
None of them addressed the tweet directly.
Josh Fulfer, who has made a name for himself as a Trump supporter and local right-wing antagonist, accused Islas of bringing “Brown Berets” to the meeting in an attempt to intimidate vaccination opponents.
He also chided Islas for the “Brown is beautiful” and “Chica Power” graphics on her Twitter page. @VivaciousVeva is her personal Twitter account, not the account she maintains as a Fresno Unified School Board trustee, @VoteVeva. Islas has changed the settings on both of her accounts to limit the visibility of her tweets to select followers. Her seat is up for election on the November ballot.
Fulfer’s comments outraged speaker Rafael Avitia, who charged that racism is at the root of the criticism of Islas. He also said that anti-vaxxers “are killing people with their ignorance.”
Avitia then talked about the city’s history of violence against people of color. When Slatic reacted with laughter, Avitia angrily shouted at him, “American terrorist right there, white man afraid of brown women, white man afraid of Black women, American terrorist, American terrorist!”
That prompted Jonasson Rosas to call a second five-minute recess. When the meeting resumed, Trustee Valerie Davis said she wanted to hear from the final two members of the public who had signed up to speak. Jonasson Rosas reminded the public to maintain civility.
The next speaker was Jessica Mahoney, a former Fresno Unified bus driver and longtime critic of Slatic, who talked about “difficult parents” and then started talking about the failed effort to recall Slatic. Slatic could be heard off-mic telling Jonasson Rosas “do your job” and stop speakers from casting aspersions on him.
Debate then broke out between Slatic and Jonasson Rosas over whether the speaker had violated board policy with the verbal attack on him, while audience members began clapping and whistling.
As Jonasson Rosas tried to regain order, Islas could be heard saying loudly, “I sat through numerous speakers who were offensive, I allowed them to speak as is their right,” and Mahoney yelled repeatedly, “I have the floor! Marine, stand down! I have the floor!”
Jonasson then adjourned the meeting before the final speaker reached the microphone.
Out-of-Control Board Meetings
It was the rowdiest meeting since August, when Slatic’s self-proclaimed “filibuster” during the superintendent-board communications portion of the meeting, caused then-Board President Valerie Davis to adjourn the meeting. His action led to the board’s vote in October to censure him for a second time.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Slatic told GV Wire that Islas has told people she regrets the tweet, but instead of deleting it she has blocked who can see her tweets on her personal and campaign Twitter accounts.
“If she’s blocking anyone who’s not her BFFs from her social media and she won’t take down the thing that she is telling people that she knows is wrong and she shouldn’t have done it, boy, we’ve got a big-ass problem with her understanding of right and wrong and taking care of the people in her district.”
Islas has not responded to GV Wire’s query seeking comment about her tweet.
She told the Fresno Bee’s Education Lab late Wednesday that she is not apologizing for the tweet, which she claims has been “intentionally misconstrued” by her political opponents in advance of the upcoming election.
She said it was not her intention to “hurt anybody who is struggling with conception or infertility,” but was intended to “dispel anti-vaxxer rhetoric.”
Islas described the infertility remark as a “jest” that she acknowledged some might find in poor taste.
Emotions Running High
Jonasson Rosas told GV Wire on Thursday morning that she’s heard from community members “recognizing the ridiculousness of the situation” after seeing the chaotic School Board meeting.
Emotions continue to run high in the community over the pandemic and vaccinations, making it a stressful time for many, she said. Arguments over a tweet and attacks on School Board members are distracting from what should be the focus, which is improving education for Fresno Unified students, she said.
And Jonasson Rosas said she’s concerned about the impact of the turmoil at School Board meetings on young people in the community, including the two student trustees who attend the meetings.
“And if this is what we’re showing them it’s like to be a decisionmaker, how can we hope for tomorrow when this is the example we’re setting?” she said.
GOP Says Islas Should Resign
Calls for Islas to resign extended to the Fresno County Republican Party, which on Thursday — more than a week after Islas’ tweet — issued a news release, calling her tweet “bigoted, disrespectful, and inhumane.”
In its statement, the county GOP accused Islas of implementing Critical Race Theory districtwide and supporting mask mandates.
Critical Race Theory, a target in recent years of conservatives, argues that racism is embedded in legal and social structures, unfairly restricting people of color. Fresno Unified has not enacted Critical Race Theory as a policy.
The GOP news release then said, “The parents, students, and community deserve a true and effective leader on the Fresno Unified School Board. This statement is unacceptable and shows the true colors of Veva Islas. The Fresno County Republican Party calls on Veva Islas to resign immediately.”
Fresno County Dems Support Islas
On Friday, the Fresno County Democratic Party issued a news release saying the party supports Islas and her efforts to counter misinformation about COVID-19 vaccinations.
The Democratic Party news release came in response to the Fresno County GOP’s statement on Thursday.
“There is nothing Veva Islas can do to ‘promote infertility of unvaccinated men,’ as neither their
vaccination status nor their fertility are under her control,” the Democratic Party statement said. “As a public official, all she can do is use her platform to combat disinformation and discourage risky behavior.”
As for her endorsement of mask mandates, “for that, we thank her,” the Democratic Party statement said.