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Shasta County voting disarray creates uncertainty for school district special election

Community member Don Spurgeon speaks to the Gateway Unified School District Board in January, 2023.
Annelise Pierce
Shasta Scout
Community member Don Spurgeon speaks to the Gateway Unified School District Board in January, 2023.

The Gateway Unified School District needs to fill a vacant school board seat, but Shasta County doesn’t currently have a way to hold elections.

The president of the Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees, Cherrill Clifford, resigned abruptly in February shortly after she was elected. On Monday night, the remaining board members tried for the third time to appoint someone to fill the seat, but were again unable to agree on a candidate.

According to state elections law, the board had 60 days to make a decision, making the deadline Friday, April 7.

"It’s out of our hands now, and it goes to the county, and the County Office of Education orders a special election," said Debby Boontjer, executive assistant to the superintendent at Gateway Unified School District.

But Shasta County doesn’t have a voting system in place to conduct elections. County supervisors voted to terminate the county’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems in January. They’re moving forward with a plan to hand count ballots, which has yet to be finalized. The county also needs to choose another state certified voting system to handle other aspects of an election, like ballot printing and accessibility.

"It's up to the county supervisors to figure that out," Boontjer said. "We have no say in how an election is run."

Boontjer said the school district will pay for the special election, which she said is estimated to cost between $75,000 and $150,000.

The special election has not been officially announced yet, but Boontjer said they've been told by county elections staff that it will be held during the general election on November 7. She said the standard application period for a November general election is between July and mid-August.

"This is a whole new experience for Gateway," Boontjer said. "Normally in the past, when we’ve had a vacancy, our boards have been very successful in placing a person. This is the first time we’ve had to go to a special election."

The district's Board of Trustees has recently struggled with dysfunction and legal issues. In December, its three newest members fired the district's long-time superintendent with no explanation. The group is currently facing a lawsuit from a citizens committee in Redding and has received other threats of legal action based on alleged violations of California's public transparency law.

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.