The Gateway Unified School District board of trustees failed to select a replacement for former board president Cherrill Clifford last Wednesday night, increasing the likelihood that a special election will have to be held if the diminished four-person board can’t agree on a candidate by April 8.
Clifford’s reign as board president was short and contentious. Elected last November along with Lindsi Haynes, whose husband Elias was appointed to the board last year, Clifford and the Haynes formed a 3-2 ultraconservative majority against longtime trustees Dale Wallace and Phil Lewis.
As its first official act, the new MAGA majority fired former Gateway superintendent James Harrell in December.
Harrell’s dismissal was unpopular with many Gateway teachers, staff, and parents who in subsequent weeks grew increasingly frustrated at board meetings as the new MAGA majority careened from one potential Brown Act violation to the next.
Clifford resigned from the board on Feb. 8, after emails revealed she had illegally hired controversial thrice-fired school superintendent Bryan Caples to head Gateway without consulting her fellow board members.
According to Gateway’s legal counsel, state law mandates that a special election be held if a new trustee can’t be seated within 60 days. According to registrar of voters Cathy Darling Allen, if the special election is held, Gateway may have to borrow voting machines from another county, since the Shasta County Board of Supervisors has scrapped the contract with Dominion Voting Systems.
On Wednesday night, the Gateway board interviewed six potential candidates, four of whom would ultimately be put to the vote and none of whom could break the 2-2 stalemate between the Haynes on one side and the more moderate Wallace and Lewis on the other.
Acting superintendent Steve Henson drew names from a hat; each candidate was asked a series of 10 questions: What is your connection to Gateway? Why do you want to serve? What are the district’s major problems? What’s your vision for the district?
Lindsi Haynes asked each candidate if they kept up with changes in state education law, presumably fishing for candidates antagonistic toward transgender student rights, critical race theory, and public health mandates. No one took the bait.
First up was Don Spurgeon, a 1964 Central Valley High School graduate, and veteran of the Vietnam war. His son graduated from CVHS in 1990. Spurgeon, a longtime fixture at Shasta Lake public events who ran against and lost to Clifford in the November election, seemed to be the crowd’s sentimental favorite.
Jonathan Horst’s connection to the Gateway community was more tenuous; his sons started out playing football and baseball at Gateway district schools but currently attend UPREP. Horst agreed with several other candidates that politics was one of the biggest issues facing the district, the consensus being politics need to be removed from the education equation.
Candidate number three, self-confessed militia member Jesse Lane, concurred.
“Politics shouldn’t play a role in education,” said Lane, who has become somewhat infamous locally thanks to his menacing Facebook posts during the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. In one post during this time period, Lane and two of his children posed with assault rifles.
Perhaps there’s something to be said for teaching kids to arm and defend themselves; on the other hand, Lane can be somewhat overprotective. At a recent board meeting, he complained that a young adult novel assigned to his 12-year-old daughter was “grooming” her because it contained a brief seminude scene.
During Wednesday’s interview, Lane, who grew up in the district that his two daughters now attend, was on his best behavior. He made a compelling case for himself, turning a negative, the days he spent in a Gateway continuation school as a 17-year-old, into a positive that set him on a career path in commercial retrofitting.
“Gateway is a real special place,” he said, noting that many kids in the district grow up in adverse environments. “I was one of those continuation kids who needed extra help.”
Asked about his vision for the district, Lane said he wants “all kids to flourish and do well inside the district.”
The last question on Henson’s list provided the interviewees an opportunity to ask board members about their experiences as trustees. Phil Lewis’s grim reply to all six applicants is worth repeating at length.
“I will say this position has its ups and downs,” Lewis began. “I had the fortune—or misfortune—of reading a novel in the last week that took me back about three years.”
The main characters in the novel were a doctor and an artist who had to navigate the narrow confines of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Lewis, the book hit too close to home.
“It almost made me physically ill to read this book because when I reflect back on what the country, what our school districts have gone through in the last three years, the decisions that had to be made, they were not easy,” he said.
“Some of these questions, whoever’s selected for the position, you’re going to find out the reality, the difficulty that happens with those decisions,” Lewis continued. “When we started with COVID … there was data out there that was not accurate. There was data out there that was trying to protect our medical professionals, they didn’t have personal protection equipment, they didn’t have masks, so they told us don’t wear masks, you don’t need it.”
Lewis remains palpably angry at the bad advice given by Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the early days of the pandemic. Concerned that the public might panic and horde personal protective equipment leaving healthcare workers defenseless, Fauci falsely claimed that masks were unnecessary for the general public.
When months later Fauci reversed this “noble lie” and recommended widespread mask usage to protect against the airborne respiratory virus, a large portion of the population refused to follow federal and state government mask mandates, led by then commander-in-chief Donald Trump.
Bureaucrats continued telling such noble lies throughout the pandemic, destroying confidence in the public healthcare system.
“It took our country several months to get up and start moving in the right direction,” Lewis said. “Some of the decisions that our country made, did I agree with them? On the most part I did, based on the fact that I was trying to work with data within a very limited knowledge space and nobody had those answers.”
“As you invite yourself to be a part of this board, whoever is chosen, be aware those issues are never over,” he concluded sternly, complimenting all six candidates for applying for the position.
Candidate number four, Joseph Fairfield, said he moved to the Shasta Lake area from Anderson in 1986 before Shasta Lake incorporated. All three of his children attended Gateway schools; the last one graduated from CVHS in 1999. Fairfield’s son Timothy gained local notoriety at an April 2021 Shasta County Board of Supervisors meeting when he praised the fact that rope is reusable, the better to hang government officials who endorse public health mandates and gun control measures.
Joseph Fairfield claimed he has a master’s degree in the behavioral sciences with an emphasis in conflict resolution, training that ideally suits him for the board’s presently conflicted condition.
Former Shasta Lake city councilmember and mayor Dean Goekler, the fifth candidate, also brought a prodigious amount of relevant experience to the table, having served on numerous local boards and committees during the past three decades.
The sixth and final candidate for the position was David Thompson. A USAF veteran and former junior high school science teacher who spent 30 years teaching in the Gateway district before retiring in 2011, Thompson was arguably the most qualified candidate for the trustee position.
A public speaker at the beginning of the meeting had urged the board to choose a new trustee now and avoid an expensive special election the district can’t afford later. The question of the night was, could any of the candidates break the board’s 2-2 deadlock?
“Good luck!” the speaker said.
Lewis got the ball rolling by making a motion to nominate Don Spurgeon for the position, citing the Vietnam vet’s longtime service to the community and the fact that he ran for the board seat in November. Lindsi Haynes pointed out that Spurgeon had failed to finish in the top two and lost the election. The motion to select Spurgeon failed on a 2-2 vote, the Haynes voting against him and Wallace and Lewis voting for him.
Next Elias Haynes made a motion to select Jesse Lane for the position, saying he identified with Lane’s struggles as a teenager. “I wasn’t exactly a good kid,” said Haynes, who repeatedly said Lane “has a stake in the community” which was presumably a reference to the Stake in NorCal Facebook group Lane co-founded.
In various Facebook, videos Lane claims to host weekly militia meetings at his home. Lane, the youngest person applying for the position, would bring “fresh ideas” to the board, according to Elias.
With Lane’s nomination, Lindsi Haynes drew a line in the sand. “My position is that it’s important that [the candidate] currently have children in the district,” she stated. Jesse Lane was the only candidate that fit the description, and when the motion to nominate him failed in another 2-2 tie, any chance the board would fill the position Wednesday night faded away.
Dale Wallace gave it a shot anyway, first making a motion to nominate former Shasta Lake mayor Dean Goekler for the position and then 30-year Gateway teaching veteran David Thompson. Both motions failed on a 2-2 vote.
“If neither of you are open to either of the two candidates [remaining], then I would say our ability to come up with a person at this point is not going to happen,” Lewis said gruffly. “Is there anybody left on the list who meets your criteria?”
“It’s not about meeting the criteria,” Haynes complained, before insisting that the candidate must have children in the district, that is, meet her criteria. Of the two candidates left on the list Jonathan Horst, who said he’s enrolling his freshman son in CVHS, came closest to meeting Haynes’ requirement. Joseph Fairfield put three kids through Gateway schools, but the last one graduated in 1999, so he missed the boat.
At any rate, no further motions to nominate the two remaining candidates were made. With the April 8 deadline to fill the board vacancy less than a month away, the board must now reopen the position—all six candidates were invited to reapply—and schedule another special board meeting to interview and select one of the candidates.
If everything goes according to schedule, the position will be reopened for applicants on March 13 and closed on March 17. Factoring in a background check, a candidate needs to be selected before the end of the month to beat the April 8 deadline and avoid a special election.
“This is a disappointment! It’s been a waste of all our time!” a woman in the audience shouted as the meeting adjourned.
With a special election for the Gateway Unified School District looming even as Shasta County scraps its contract with Dominion Voting Systems, A News Café asked registrar of voters Cathy Darling Allen about the logistics of the district’s special election.
“There is a provision in the elections code to allow jurisdictions to ‘borrow’ equipment,” she said. “This could be a potential solution to a special election.”
Darling Allen added that so far she hasn’t reached out to any other counties to inquire about borrowing the machines. She then pointed out that borrowing voting machines won’t be an option for statewide election dates, because “all counties will be conducting their own elections, and we have no guarantee that any of our neighbors would allow their equipment into a political environment like what we are currently experiencing.”
The registrar’s office is working with the board and county staff to develop a presentation to the board on March 28. Supervisor Patrick Jones intends to replace Dominion with a yet-to-be-named hand-count voting system. Supervisor Kevin Crye has incredibly invited high-profile election denier Mike Lindell to provide such a system.
“The further into the details of a hand count plan we get, the more serious concerns I have about it, and even more serious concerns about how to serve all our voters, including the disabled, if the board does not select a certified system that will enable those voters to vote privately and independently,” Darling Allen said.
“There is a very real risk to the Presidential Primary election [in 2024], and of course also to any potential special elections that may occur in the meantime. Voters could be disenfranchised, which is unacceptable. As we complete our internal analysis about the hand count plan and the new system implementation we will have a better view of when that risk becomes acute. We will share more once that work is done.”
On a more positive note, a well-placed source has informed A News Café that the Shasta County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to replace outgoing county counsel Rubin Cruse with assistant county counsel Jim Ross during a closed session on Friday. The source said Ross will be formally appointed at the March 28 board meeting.
The decision to hire in-house for the county counsel position ensures the board will continue to receive uninterrupted legal advice as it proceeds to enact its profoundly right-wing agenda.
Author’s note: This story could not have been completed without local videographer Michael Flanagan, who filmed the Gateway board meeting Wednesday night. Readers may watch the entire meeting at this link.