COVID-Minimizing Soccer Moms Seek Takeover of Millville School Board

Millville school board candidates Beth Watt, Taryn Ham and Whitney Hathaway.

Beth Watt, Taryn Ham and Whitney Hathaway have several things in common. All three women have children presently attending Millville Elementary School. All three women have volunteered with the Palo Cedro Youth Soccer Organization. And since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, all three women have protested against the state’s public health mandates at sometimes contentious Millville Elementary School District board meetings.

Now, Watt, Ham and Hathaway are running as a three-candidate slate for the five-member Millville Elementary School District Board of Trustees. Incumbent board members Kristi Poole and Luke Wilson are up for re-election, and Sandy Winterlin is stepping down from the board, so three seats are up for grabs. If Watt, Ham and Hathaway sweep all three seats by gaining the most votes, they’ll assume majority control of the board.

To what end that majority control would lead is somewhat vague at this point, given that no candidate forums or debates are planned. All three candidates declined to be interviewed by A News Café, so all we’re left with are the innocuous platitudes from their campaign bios.

“Joining the school board would be a great way to continue giving back to kids and parents in the district,” Ham states in her bio. “I hope to keep Millville Elementary School a great place to learn.”

Hathaway’s bio provides a short list of items she plans to accomplish if elected:

“My main focus if I am elected to the school board will be 1.) making sure the students get the quality education they deserve 2.) transparency between the board, teachers, staff and parents. I want parents and teachers to feel heard and supported and 3.) A financially responsible budget with no wasteful spending.”

“I have a deep love for our school and want to continue to improve the strong educational foundation Millville provides,” states Watt, who works as a flight paramedic and EMT educator. “As a school board member, I will support students, teachers, and staff.”

In September 2020, Watt demonstrated the depth of her affinity for Millville Elementary by suing the school district. She joined three other local moms in a lawsuit filed by Washington state-based Freedom Foundation, an ultraconservative anti-union lobbying organization. The lawsuit claimed the public health measures taken by the state to slow the spread of COVID-19 were unconstitutional.

Named in the suit were Millville Elementary School District Superintendent Mindy DeSantis, Shasta Union High School District Superintendent Jim Cloney, Enterprise Elementary School District Superintendent Brian Winstead, California State Public Health Officer Sandra Shwery, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“The citizens of California recognize the importance of a quality education cannot be overstated and have enshrined it as a right guaranteed by the California Constitution,” the lawsuit argued. “The State of California’s response to COVID-19 prevents students, especially the disadvantaged, from accessing a quality education.”

Local foster mom and lawsuit co-plaintiff Gina Looney provided a case in point. Her foster child, then a freshman at Enterprise High School, has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, attention learning hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) an auditory processing disorder and is deficient in proprioception and vestibular systems. He requires daily in-person instruction from an actual teacher, which by definition wasn’t provided by the remote learning/in-person hybrid systems employed by most school districts early in the pandemic.

While Watt’s three children apparently don’t have any disabilities, the lawsuit contended they’ve still been harmed by the state’s COVID-19 mandates, including her oldest daughter, who attends Foothill High School.

“Since the COVID-19 restrictions, she is no longer able to compete in sports or physical education and only attends limited in-person instruction on Tuesday and Friday and is forced to attempt to study remotely on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday,” the lawsuit stated. “Her school’s current curriculum does not challenge her academically and deprives her of much needed physical activity and social interaction.”

At the time of the lawsuit, Watt’s second daughter was attending 7th grade at Millville, and her son was attending 5th grade. The daughter, “a straight-A student athlete doesn’t find her curriculum challenging,” the lawsuit claimed. “Like [her older sister] she has lost motivation, deprived of sports and PE. [The son] thrives in a school environment where he can interact with other children daily and play during recess and PE. The forced remote setting impairs his education development and has also led to anxiety which as in turn contributed to stomach issues.”

Shasta County’s first major COVID-19 surge began in September 2020.

Keep in mind, at the time this lawsuit demanding that all COVID-19 precautions in Shasta County schools be dropped was filed, September 2020, the county was about to experience its first significant COVID-19 surge which would ultimately hospitalize 446 people and kill 117 people by the end of the year. Since March 2020, 2103 Shasta County residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 690 have died from the disease, according to Shasta County Public Health.

One hurdle blocking the return to full in-person learning in Shasta County was the California Department of Public Health’s social distancing requirement of six feet, which made it impossible for some smaller schools—Millville is a K-8 school with roughly 450 students—to remain open full-time. The Freedom Foundation lawsuit singled out Millville in this regard:

“Mindy DeSantis, Millville Elementary School Superintendent recently posted on a school update they are unable to open five days a week because they cannot maintain the required distance between students in the classroom. Thus until the CDPH amends or rescinds the guidelines, students can only attend school part time.”

That all changed in March 2021, when California adopted the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation of 3 feet for social distancing in classrooms. The shorter distance permitted schools like Millville to open full-time for in-person instruction, albeit with mask mandates still in effect.

That made the Freedom Foundation lawsuit moot. It was vacated last summer. I asked DeSantis what it was like to be the target of a lawsuit during a public health emergency, but she declined to answer because Watt, a plaintiff in the suit, is running for the board.

Millville Elementary School District Superintendent Mindy DeSantis

“As superintendent, it’s against ethics and policy for me to discuss school board candidates,” DeSantis said.

Shasta Union High School District Superintendent Jim Cloney was also targeted by the Freedom Foundation lawsuit but has no concerns with the Nov. 8 election and felt free to comment on the case.

“Of course being named in any sort of lawsuit or legal action, whether it be personally or against the district, is unsettling,” Cloney said. “At the time we were doing our best to get schools open and had decided upon a hybrid program, a combination of in-person and distance learning that kept the campuses at about 50 percent of capacity on any given day, and having the lawsuit filed on top of all the other concerns at the time didn’t make that any easier to implement.”

Cloney was the only school official contacted by me who was willing to talk on the record for this story. My multiple attempts to contact Millville Elementary School District board members Kristi Poole and Lucas Wilson, each of whom are up for re-election, were not returned.

Once again, we’re left with campaign bios, but at least these bios have some meat on them, since Poole and Wilson are already serving on the board.

Poole became a Millville school board member in 2014. A decade earlier, she had ditched her high-flying gig at Google and fled San Francisco with her husband and their three children to Shasta County, to be near family and enjoy the simpler life in the country.

“While we now have two children in college and one in high school, all three of our children proudly attended Millville Elementary School, succeeded while there and have fond memories of it,” Poole states in her bio. “Millville Elementary was instrumental in their early education. It still is for many children, and I am proud to be part of the school community.”

“As an active board member, the past couple of years have been exceptionally challenging with PG&E shut offs, COVID, social distancing, mask mandates and vaccine requirements,” Poole’s bio continues. “It’s been a tough time for all of us and boards have gotten a rough go of it. Some boards deserve their bad reputation, others, like us, made the best decisions possible for the children with the information available, often straddling the line of what was required and what made sense.”

“Our small school had to stretch to ensure that our children received the best education during those uncertain times. We were one of the first schools to institute online learning in the early pandemic, we welcomed children back to campus as soon as possible and we pushed back on the state when it was considering implementing vaccine mandates.”

Millville Elementary School District Board member Luke Wilson.

Luke Wilson, a physical therapist, was appointed as an interim board member last year. He and his schoolteacher wife have three daughters, two of whom have attended Millville since preschool.

“I have been involved with the school in some form every year as a volunteer, coach, fundraiser, and general supporter,” the Shasta County native’s bio states. “I love the experience my kids have received at our school, and I’d like the culture of the school to continue for generations.”

When it comes to his dislike for COVID-19 mandates, Wilson is in tune with Watt, Ham and Hathaway.

“As a board member and parent I was not in favor of masking the students in school, and was strongly opposed to distance learning,” Wilson’s bio states. “Since my appointment to the board masks have gone away, and many programs that had been put on hold have returned with strength. We have participated in a strong push back to the state regarding vaccine requirements for students and have now seen that movement held back as well.”

What Wilson and his cohorts are advocating is the hobbling of public health policy at the local school board level. That’s concerning, because contrary to President Joe Biden’s recent claim on 60 Minutes that the pandemic is over, COVID-19 is an airborne respiratory virus that currently kills 400 Americans every day and infects one in five who contract it with Long COVID as it continues to spread and mutate around the world.

Shasta Union High School District Superintendent Jim Cloney.

I asked Shasta Union High School District Superintendent Jim Cloney if the nation has a significant flu/COVID-19 “twindemic” this fall and winter as some experts are predicting, would it be possible to reinstate mask mandates in local schools when a significant number of parents object to mask mandates?

“Implementing any sort of restrictions in the educational setting at this point would be difficult,” Cloney said. “There are clearly strong opinions on all sides of the issue and now that most of the restrictions have been lifted, bringing those back would be very difficult.”

There’s been a lot of talk about “learning loss” in the mainstream media lately, referring to the lack of academic progress students made in remote and hybrid learning environments during the pandemic. But what about teacher, administrator and employee losses, especially those over the age of 50 who’ve retired early or quit to to work remotely from home rather than risk catching COVID in an indoor group setting?

I asked Cloney how COVID has affected the SUHSD workforce. He had a lot to say.

“During the first two to three weeks of this school year we definitely were experiencing an extension of the staffing issues we were having at the end of the last school year,” Cloney said. “We had multiple teaching staff testing positive for COVID and there has been a shortage of substitutes since the beginning of 2021-22 school year.”

“I can only assume at least part of that shortage is based on a reluctance among our normal substitute teaching pool to come into the schools due to potential COVID exposure,” Cloney continued.  “Our positivity rates among the staff have come down in recent weeks which has helped, but the substitute teacher shortage is still a problem.

“We have teachers, counselors, or admin covering teachers’ classrooms throughout the day as needed to keep things moving forward. We also have multiple classified positions vacant (bus drivers, custodians, food service workers) which seems to be reflective of the labor shortages being seen across the state and country. I am not sure how that ties back directly to COVID, but it was certainly less of an issue prior to the pandemic.”

At the much smaller Millville Elementary School District, board member Poole hopes to keep the district’s tight-knit long-serving staff together should she be reelected.

“We have the best teachers and staff at Millville Elementary and have done our best to support them over the years,” Poole states in her campaign bio. “Did you know that several of our staff have been employed for over 30 years? Millville Elementary School supports a culture of stable and consistent dedication.”

Board member Wilson also cited the district’s stability as one of its strongest points.

“I have learned many things since joining the Millville School Board, but what stands out most is the stability, commitment and thoughtfulness of the community members who serve the board,” he states in his campaign bio.

Watt, Ham and Hathaway aren’t seeking stability, at least as far as the Millville Elementary School District Board of Trustees is concerned. They’re running as a slate specifically to upend the board. What they intend to do should they gain control of the board remains la question du jour.

Facebook post by Whitney Hathaway calling for protest against mask mandate at Millville Elementary last summer.

I received a positive response from Hathaway when I first contacted her by email for this story.

“Yes! Beth, Taryn and I are friends and have children at Millville school,” she wrote back. “We have very similar ideas and goals for Millville School if we make it onto the school board so we decided to run together. I hope you don’t mind but I CC’d Beth and Taryn on this email so they can be aware of our exchange. What can I help you with?”

I had questions of course. Lots of them.

Why are the three of them running as a slate? What specific decisions made by the present board majority do they disagree with? Do they support present school superintendent Mindy DeSantis? Are they proposing any changes to the curriculum? Do they believe Critical Race Theory is being taught at Millville? Do they think the sex education curriculum is age and gender appropriate?

But despite repeated emails and phone calls I never got any answers from Watt, Ham or Hathaway, other than the banalities contained in their campaign bios. The same goes for Poole and Wilson.

It’s just a little ole nonpartisan school board race, but you get the impressions there’s a lot on the line for all of the candidates involved. No one wants to say the wrong thing, so no one says anything at all.

Still, despite the opacity, the choice for Millville’s 1200 or so registered voters is fairly clear. They can choose the stability of the present board by reelecting Poole and Wilson, or they can roll the dice and usher in a brand-new board majority by voting for the Watt, Ham and Hathaway slate.

No pressure. It’s only the future of their children’s education that’s at stake.

Whether that stability remains will be determined on Nov. 8.

If you appreciate journalist R.V. Scheide’s reporting and commentary, please consider contributing to A News Cafe. Thank you!

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments