A recent outpouring of concern during a school board meeting served as part tribute, part rally for Burbank High English teacher Wendy Miller, who is better known for her work as the Associated Student Body, or ASB, adviser.
With 22 years of experience in the district, Miller was informed May 29 that her 19-year tenure as ASB adviser was over, though she’ll remain on the faculty as a teacher.
Seventy-three Burbank High students, alumni, former instructors and staff packed into the second-to-last Burbank Unified board meeting of the school year on June 7.
Of that group, 14 spoke that night, while 17 emails and personal letters in support of Miller were directed to either the school board, school staff or Supt. Matt Hill.
“The past month has been a nightmare,” said Miller, creator of the school’s popular Blue Crew shirt. “ASB was never a job for me, it was my life. I deeply love working with my leadership students and seeing their plans come to life through each and every activity we created for the student body. I just don’t understand how this can happen. None of this makes any sense.”
School administrators declined to discuss the decision.
“The situation with our ASB adviser is confidential,” Principal Michael Bertram said in a prepared statement. “While she is not going to be the ASB adviser next year, she was not dismissed. She is a full-time teacher at Burbank High School.”
Miller said she was let go as ASB adviser, a non-contractual position just days after Burbank High’s graduation.
“I was called in the day after Memorial Day, and we had just a brief meeting,” Miller said of her talk with Bertram. “[Bertram] told me, ‘We are moving in a different direction.’ My first question was, ‘Is this disciplinary?’ My second question was, ‘Is this about my job performance or my work ethic?’ He said ‘no’ to both of those [questions], and he actually used the word ‘phenomenal’ in regards to my work activities and my work ethic and job performance.”
Miller pressed the issue further in the meeting with Bertram but said she didn’t really get an answer.
“He repeated that he is ‘simply going in a different direction,’” she said. “I asked in what direction that is and ‘*May I have the opportunity to move in that direction?’ and he said, ‘No.’ I just kept saying, ‘I don’t understand why. What more do you want? What different direction do you need?’”
A distraught Miller called friends, administrators and former colleagues looking for help.
“From there, I went to the superintendent and the union, and I wrote to the board of education and everybody has been saying the same thing,” Miller said. “Those positions, whether coaching or advising such activities as ASB or yearbook, are non-contractual, and I know that. I reached out to activity directors up and down California. It was arbitrary and capricious, period. That came from everywhere, unfortunately. It’s unethical. The whole situation is unethical.”
In an email blast to teachers on June 7, Bertram wrote he “wanted to share that the ASB adviser position is open. I am looking for someone to step in and carry on many of the wonderful traditions and high expectations that Wendy Miller has provided for two decades.”
In that email, Bertram extended the deadline to apply until June 15.
As of Friday, the hiring process was still ongoing.
In Miller’s English class at Burbank High, framed ASB class photos displayed for years were on a desk in the corner.
The pictures, dating to Miller’s first class, were recently taken down.
“There’s such a lack of respect, a callousness in this whole process, even the photos,” said alumnus Tony Espinoza, who spent a year on ASB before graduating in 2006. “Why did they take down the photos? It seems like the school is trying not just to erase Wendy Miller but links to all the ASB students during her time. I can’t believe it.”
Miller asked that the photos be returned rather than discarded.
Miller said some frames were damaged, and the glass in some photos was broken.
While Diana Abasta, president of the Burbank Teachers Assn., said she couldn’t comment on personnel matters, she addressed the need to improve communication when assignments are taken away.
“I think that it’s always good to have protocol in place just to keep everything transparent,” Abasta said. “That just makes sense to have something in place just to make it a fair process.”
The high turnout for the June 7 meeting was due in part to the efforts of Stephanie Eskander, a 2013 graduate who sent text messages to friends and former ASB students in the days before the meeting.
“Even years after graduating, I consider Wendy Miller a role model,” Eskander said. “She does a wonderful job of molding young leaders, and I know it’s a cliché, but she’s been a second mother to me. When I heard about this injustice from another student, I just started texting and getting the word out. She’s been there for so long for us, we needed to be there for her.”
Miller’s army of supporters had hoped the school board or Hill would intervene.
“The dilemma for me, as well as the school board, is our roles and responsibilities,” Hill said during the board meeting. “The request tonight is asking us to change our practices, and it’s something that I thought about tonight as I listened to your comments. Should I, as superintendent, reach down and overrule decisions at a school site?
He added, “The power and the decision and the responsibility to select an ASB adviser is that of a principal … I don’t want to get into a practice of micromanaging or overstepping my role.”
The board largely echoed Hill’s sentiment, which left Miller without a solid answer.
“Since Dr. Bertram has been my principal, there really haven’t been any issues,” Miller said. “He’s always applauded me for my leadership with the students. He’s given me accolades for different activities.