On Thursday, in an emergency meeting called after the California Teachers Association alleged the Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees had violated the Brown Act numerous times at its last meeting on Jan. 4, the Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to rescind the actions it took last week pertaining to the search for a new superintendent for the district.
“We’re just undoing what we did at that meeting,” board president Cherrill Clifford said. “That’s what they want, it’s fine with us.”
The sudden turnabout represents a stinging defeat to the Gateway board’s new MAGA majority. The new MAGA majority is comprised of Clifford and Lindsi Haynes who were elected in November, and Haynes’ husband Elias, who was selected for the board in 2021.
MAGA is shorthand for the white Christian nationalist movement founded by twice-impeached president Donald Trump that has pledged among other things to take control of America’s school boards. Their pet peeves are critical race theory, the LGBTQ community and wokeism in general.
From the instant Lindsi and Clifford were sworn in in December, the threesome separated themselves from longtime board members Phil Lewis and Dale Wallace, voting 3-2 to appoint totally inexperienced octogenarian Clifford as board president and voting by the same margin to fire superintendent Jim Harrell with almost no public debate.
Harrell was on the ninth year of a 10-year contract which means Gateway gets to pay him $150,000 or so for doing absolutely nothing in 2023, a waste of money that has infuriated Gateway administrators, teachers and staff.
Shoving through agenda items before they can be publicly discussed has become Clifford’s signature move. Like the Haynes, she appears to be a deer caught in the headlights, but despite the slight tremor in her hands she’s quick with the gavel.
That’s what got the the new board majority in trouble with the CTA last week, after Clifford closed public comment on the superintendent job search and the board voted 3-2 in favor of putting Lindsi Haynes in charge of it.
Incredibly, it was announced at the start of the Jan. 4 meeting that those who were in attendance to comment on the superintendent job search should wait until the agenda item came up, only to have Clifford drop the hammer when it did come up. People were eventually able to speak, but not before the board had voted 3-2 to conduct a belated public survey, advertise for the superintendent position and put Lindsi in charge of the job search.
Those three actions have now been voided by the Gateway board’s unanimous vote on Thursday. The board also promised to cease and desist whispering in open session—a Brown Act violation—which Clifford and the Haynes have practiced since cutting themselves off from Lewis and Wallace and any expertise on how to actually run a public meeting.
That didn’t stop at least one person in attendance from wondering what Clifford and the Haynes were whispering about.
Anna Lewis attended Gateway schools from kindergarten to Central Valley High School. She’s a 2016 graduate of CVHS, where she served as the student member on the board of trustees.
A 2020 graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, she’s now an LTJG in the Naval Reserve and second officer on a forward supply ship for Naval Command.
Lewis is home on leave, and she doesn’t like the things she’s been hearing about the school board she used to serve on. Like a lot of people in the district, she wants to know what they were whispering about.
“At the school board meeting on Jan. 4, the three of you were whispering and discussing amongst yourselves, and I would like to know what was said,” Lewis said. “Will you please disclose to the public what you were discussing?”
“I don’t recall every time I had to consult with Steve [interim superintendent Steve Henson] or somebody else,” Clifford said. “I don’t recall what was said. The microphone was on half the time, it was a chaotic situation and I can’t answer your question.”
“That’s a Brown Act situation!” someone from the crowd yelled.
Clifford gaveled him down, twice.
“She’s at the microphone, she’s the one doing the talking,” Clifford admonished the heckler.
“This is your chance to cure and correct your Brown Act violations,” LTJG Lewis continued. “If you don’t recall what was said a week ago between the three of you—two of your board members were left out—you cannot recall, that’s what you’re saying?”
“That’s what I said,” Clifford insisted. “Whatever was said was related to what was going on at the time it could have been about the microphones but no I don’t remember every word I said or when I said it.”
“You’re a publicly elected official at a public meeting,” Lewis pressed.
“I’m a human being, don’t pull this on me,” an irritated Clifford defended.
The audience of 60 or more people in attendance, comprised mostly of teachers and their advocates, feigned sympathy for the board president. A couple of people laughed out loud.
But at the beginning of the meeting, the teachers in attendance—and a couple of teachers who responded via proxies—made it clear they are not amused by the new MAGA majority’s antics and the money it’s throwing away.
“I’m a teacher; I’ve been here for 27 years,” Karen Butler told the board from the podium. “I had to take half of a personal day in order to be here. Luckily I have a wonderful colleague who was able to cover my class. It’s really not fair that you did this on such short notice. This is a snapshot of our school district in case you didn’t know.”
Here’s Butler’s snapshot of the Gateway Unified School District:
• 81.4 percent of the students in the district are below poverty level.
• Butler has 22 students in her 2nd grade class.
• Collectively, in the 89 school days that have occurred so far, her students have missed 217 days of school and have been tardy 115 days.
• She has had 100 percent attendance on just 3 days out of 89.
• Of her 22 students, seven live with their parents.
• In three of those families, the parents are married.
• At least six parents are in jail or have been in jail recently.
• Three students have special medical needs and plans that must be monitored daily.
• Four students are second-language learners.
• Six students are non-readers, non-readers in second grade.
• Three students have speech IEPs (Independent Education Programs) and four are awaiting academic testing.
“My point to all of this is we need every penny we have to spend on the students,” Butler said. “If you don’t think we’re something good and you’re trying to fix us again, I ask please stop trying to fix us. We don’t need to be fixed, we need to be allowed to move forward with what we’re doing.”
Butler joins a growing chorus of Gateway teachers and staff opposed to the MAGA board’s divisive tactics which are already drawing legal action and costing the district money it can ill afford.
At Thursday’s meeting, Shasta Lake School’s Michelle Perez listed the myriad ways that administrators, teachers and staff work together to connect struggling students and families who are in need of assistance to the appropriate support that is needed.
“We want our students to be academically prepared for high school and postsecondary education and be contributing citizens to society who are responsible reliable and respectful of others,” she said.
But that’s not going to happen if Gateway Unified School District gets bogged down in litigation.
“I ask that you carefully weigh your future decisions ensuring that your vote enhances and does not derail what is in the best interest of kids,” Perez said. “I respectfully request that you lead by example.”
Good luck with that.