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Redding's Gateway school board a source of protests and possible legal violations

Community member Don Spurgeon speaks to the Gateway Unified School District Board, including (l-r) newly-elected Board President Cherrill Clifford, newly-elected Board Vice President Lindsi Haynes, newly-appointed Clerk of the Board Elias Haynes, and Board incumbents Phil Lewis and Dale Wallace.
Annelise Pierce
Shasta Scout
Community member Don Spurgeon speaks to the Gateway Unified School District Board, including (l-r) newly-elected Board President Cherrill Clifford, newly-elected Board Vice President Lindsi Haynes, newly-appointed Clerk of the Board Elias Haynes, and Board incumbents Phil Lewis and Dale Wallace.

The Redding school board recently became a focus of attention after its newest members fired the district's long-time superintendent.

The Gateway Unified School District recently got three new School Board members: husband and wife Elias and Lindsi Haynes and Cherrill Clifford. The district serves a couple thousand kids in Shasta County, including a large number of Native American students.

During their first meeting together in December, the three new members voted themselves into powerful roles as president, vice president and clerk. Then, a week later, they fired long-time superintendent Jim Harrell with no explanation.

Now, the Gateway Unified School District has become a focus of attention, with residents showing up to meetings in force to protest the board’s actions, including potential legal violations.

JPR’s Jane Vaughan spoke with Shasta Scout editor and community reporter Annelise Pierce, who’s been covering these issues.

Jane Vaughan: So what sort of concerns do residents have now?

Annelise Pierce: So almost as soon as that first meeting with the new board occurred, there started being rumors coming out, we had multiple sources telling us, that the three new board members intended to hire someone named Brian Caples, who ran during the June primary last year for Superintendent of Education in Shasta County, lost for that position. But during his run for that position, it came out that he has a pretty concerning work history of terminations from previous school districts. And also, during that campaign, he made some pretty concerning remarks about Native students. Those statements really riled up the Shasta County committee generally, and especially Native parents and Native community members. And when these rumors came out that perhaps this was who the board was considering hiring, this really escalated the whole situation very, very significantly. So there's just been a real escalation in meeting pace and in meeting attendance. At the last meeting, there were approximately 120 people. They overflowed out of the boardroom and into the rain outside. And actually, it's been really interesting, because it's a very highly conservative community in Shasta County generally and in the Gateway district. Staff are saying, We voted for you guys, we wanted you. But you never said when you were running that, that you wanted to get rid of our long term superintendent or that you had any intent to bring somebody new on.

JV: So now the district, I would imagine, is looking for a new superintendent. How has that process been going?

AP: There is a policy that the board has that is supposed to be the way that they select and recruit new superintendents. They haven't followed that policy. At their last board meeting, they voted to bypass that policy, which is unclear if that's legal for them to do. Their policies call for them to have a very official recruitment process, for the net to be cast widely, for plenty of community inclusion in the process, for fair and equitable hiring practices. But what appears to be happening based on agendas, like from the last meeting, for example, is that there is a pre-selected candidate.

JV: So the Brown Act is California's public transparency law. Does it seem like it's been violated here?

AP: It is a very complicated Brown Act situation because there's a prohibition against any majority of the board speaking with each other outside of public settings about board related issues. So normally, you'd never have three people on a board of five having discussions, and here you have a husband and wife and a friend who are working together on a board. It makes for a very complicated situation. Really interestingly, what we actually saw happening during one of these public meetings was whispered conversations between those three members during the meeting itself. So as an audience of about 150 sat in front of them, they sometimes spoken into the microphone to the audience and sometimes whispered to each other during the meeting. The California Teachers Association did call that out as a Brown Act violation and the Board did respond to that legal action or that legal warning by agreeing to no longer do so. But what seems really clear is that the board doesn't really know how to follow the Brown Act. I do know that the California Teachers Association is involved legally. They've already filed a cease and desist based on Brown Act violations.

JV: What's up next for the Gateway Unified School District?

AP: There's a high majority of kids who really are vulnerable and who need special support, and the staff are more aware than anybody of how much money matters and how much money is being wasted on, you know, paying for a district superintendent severance package while hiring a new district superintendent. You know, these are elected officials. They do have the right to represent the people as they see fit,as long as they follow the law. So it will be really interesting to see how things play out over the next few months.

JV: Annelise, thank you for speaking with me today.

AP: Yeah, thank you so much.

The Gateway Unified School Board will hold a special meeting on February 3rd to discuss retaining legal counsel.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.