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The Madera Tribune

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Miller: ‘Big, Black, and Bald’

July 17, 2019

 

For The Madera Tribune

Daren Miller, being sworn in as a member of the Fresno County School Board.

When Darren Miller took over the reins of Martin Luther Middle School as principal, in his first staff meeting he introduced himself by saying that he was “big, black, and bald.” Three years after that he was demoted and placed in a counselor’s position with Madera Unified.

 

Miller filed suit against the school district and several administrators in April 2011, claiming racial discrimination as the reason for his demotion, and it was still being litigated in the summer of 2015. By that time, it had landed in the courtroom of Madera County Superior Court Judge Michael J. Jurkovich, and I was covering the trial for The Madera Tribune.

 

The reader might reasonably ask, Ok, so why are you bringing this up now? Well, the truth of the matter is, it all came back to me when I ran into John Stafford a while back in the Madera Unified District office. You remember John. At one time he was MUSD superintendent, after he had been the principal at Alpha School and before that — long before that — principal of Howard School.

 

Seeing John brought back memories of that Miller trial because he was one of the defendants. Robert Chavez, former chief academic officer for Madera Unified, was another defendant, along with the school district. As I thought about that legal tussle, I reflected on the outcome of the case and thought it would be fodder for some schoolhouse chatter — especially that $375,000.

 

It was an interesting trial for me right from the start. On my first day, the courtroom was full of supporters for Miller who was seated with his attorney, Melina S. Benninghoff. Defendants Chavez and Stafford sat with the school district’s attorney (or should I say the insurance company’s attorney), Paul A. Auchard.

 

The argument boiled down to this: why was Miller removed as principal of MLK? Madera Unified said it was because of his failure to meet the district’s academic performance expectations. Miller claimed a different reason — his race — and he was supported in this by Dr. Loraine Goodwin, who was on the MUSD board when the case against Miller was being built.

 

Miller came to Madera Unified in 2006 as principal of MLK after several stints as a principal and vice principal in Fresno County. He testified that test scores at MLK rose during his tenure there as did student and staff morale, and this was accomplished without any assistance from Chavez, Miller’s immediate supervisor, who allegedly did not participate in any advance planning activities for the school.

 

School improvement to the contrary, Miller testified that he received a visit from Stafford on the first day of school in 2008 and was put on notice that the year would be a watershed for him. Stafford was said to have suggested that three years was enough time for a principal to turn a school around. The 2008-2009 school year was Miller’s third year at MLK. Apparently he didn’t pass muster.

 

On October 28, 2009, Miller was placed on paid administrative leave and later removed as principal. Oddly enough, one month later, MLK was recognized at the Superintendent’s Gala for accomplishments made in 2008/2009. Miller wound up with a counseling job at Desmond Middle School, working for principal Marvin Baker.

 

Miller told The Tribune that after the suit was filed, he had offered to settle with MUSD for $249,000, but the district refused. If that is true, it turned out to be a mistake.

 

Over the next few months, the trial dragged on and slowly lost its jurors. It had begun with 18, and by late summer of 2015, because of various hardships, that number was down to eight. One wondered if the judge was going to wind up deciding the case. 

 

Then out of the clear, blue sky, I received two stunning documents from Stafford. The first was a court order granting the defendants’ motion for “non-suit.” Now, I am no lawyer, so you might want to check this out for yourself, but it looks like to me that the judge ruled that Miller couldn’t show that he had been the recipient of racial discrimination. It doesn’t say he wasn’t discriminated against — only that he couldn’t prove it was racial.

 

The second document informed me that the district, or rather the insurance company and Miller, had settled for $375,000. Stafford wrote that this was done to avoid paying attorney’s fees in case of a jury verdict.

 

So Darren Miller left Madera Unified, but that’s not the end of his story. In 2018, he fell just a few votes short in his campaign for Fresno City Council, District Three.  When he contested the methods of the recount that ensued, he was placed in handcuffs for forty minutes. One can hardly resist wondering if they noticed, as he had pointed out in Madera, that he was “big, black, and bald.”

 

Be that as it may, not even that was the end of Miller’s story. In March 2019, he was appointed to a vacant seat on the Fresno County Board of Education, and that’s where he is today. I wonder what Marvin Baker, his former principal at Desmond Middle School, who now works for the Fresno County Office of Education, thinks of that?

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