A majority yes vote by school board members Wednesday may have made the Kern High School District the first district in the state to say no to Harvey Milk Day.

Gay students and advocates said they were disappointed with the decision and the message it sends, believing they were denied a right to celebrate a historically relevant person on campuses. Others were glad schools will not celebrate one of the first openly gay men elected to public office in California.

Under the policy, KHSD “will not conduct exercises commemorating” the day, which falls on May 22, “nor encourage or require its schools or their staffs to conduct such exercises.”

A statewide gay rights group said it was the first such decision in California it had heard of. It was not a slam dunk.

The vote was 3-1-1, with trustees Ken Mettler, Chad Vegas and Bryan Batey voting yes and trustee Joel Heinrichs voting no. Trustee Bill Perry abstained.

Mettler, who has been denying accusations he introduced the policy to garner votes in his 32nd Assembly District Republican primary, made the motion to block Milk observances. He continued to argue Milk did not rise to the level of recognition.

Vegas, who has said the state should not be “cramming” this celebration “down our throats,” and that he “didn’t want to bring the homosexual agenda into our schools,” immediately seconded it.

Perry asked what abstaining would do.

“It would have the same effect as a no vote because we need three yes votes,” Mettler said. “We need yes votes to say no to Harvey Milk Day.”

Heinrichs, the board president, said he opposed the policy because state-encouraged observations can be political and distractions in schools. 

Under legislation Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law last Oct. 12, schools are “encouraged” — not required — to conduct Milk exercises. Milk Day this year is a Saturday. Earlier this month, Mettler asked trustees to support a state Senate bill establishing Ronald Reagan Day on Feb. 6.

KHSD’s decision on Milk Day disappointed gay students and activists who are keeping tabs on the issue.

Ariel Bustamante, a Los-Angeles area charter school student and gay club leader, pleaded with trustees at the meeting to vote against the policy.

The policy signals that schools do not support gay students, who feel unsafe and at times suicidal because of lack of school support, she said. She called Milk a civil rights hero. Allowing the celebration of Milk Day, she said, “will cost the district no money.”

“But the cost of the policy might be another student contemplating suicide because they have nowhere safe to learn,” she said.

Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, said the group has been tracking Milk Day activity and KHSD is the only district to pass such a policy. Some districts, like in Fremont, are passing resolutions to support it.

“It’s profoundly disappointing,” Laub said. “It sends a silencing message to (gay) students.”

Students, she said, could still celebrate the day through student-run groups not sponsored by schools. Many this year are celebrating throughout the state on Friday, though it is unknown if students locally will.

“They still have free speech rights to be able to celebrate,” she said. “But in Kern, it would take a lot of courage for students to celebrate something like this.”

The safety issue brought up by students, Mettler said, was a “red herring” — meant to divert attention.

Mettler has argued that Milk made no major impact while serving less than a year on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before being assassinated in 1978.

Five other speakers Wednesday, out of nine, spoke in favor of Mettler’s policy. One cited Bible passages. Two spoke of not wanting their children or grandchildren at a school that celebrated Milk.

“What we promote to our youth will affect their future,” said Rick Prevost, a local pastor. “I don’t think we need to promote the lifestyle of this man.”

Whitney Weddell, a local gay-rights activist and high school teacher, had argued educators have a hard time fitting celebrations into the school year because curriculum standards must be met.

The decision, she said, was unfortunate, and called Mettler and Vegas bullies. There is a bright spot, she said — students in her “contemporary issues” class had a long, insightful conversation on the issue.

“It's kind of ironic. The (school board) really gave us an opportunity to discuss the issue,” she said. “Perhaps the school board did us a favor.”

Don Carter, KHSD superintendent, said the district’s goal is to always embrace a learning environment for all students, and keep them safe. The district’s goal ultimately is to focus on academic achievement.