Jim Harrell, who has been the Superintendent for Shasta County’s Gateway Unified School District since 2012, was fired December 20, without cause, by a 3-2 vote of the District’s board.
The decision was made by a majority that included Elias and Lindsi Haynes and Cherrill Clifford, new board members who were elected on November 8. They join board incumbents Phil Lewis and Dale Wallace.
The board scheduled the special meeting to evaluate and consider dismissing Superintendent Harrell during the new members’ first meeting in office, earlier this month.
The December 20 special meeting drew a packed crowd of more than 100 parents, staff and community members who overflowed the District’s Board room and spilled out into the open air.
Most were there to voice their support for Harrell ahead of the anticipated closed-session vote and to express their dismay that newly elected board members were considering such a significant action without having taken time to get to know Harrell and without having solicited significant feedback from school employees and families.
Only a few speakers, including Dolores Lucero, Authur Gorman and Lori Bridgeford, voiced an opposing opinion. The trio are among those who vocally supported the recent recall of former Shasta County Supervisor Leonard Moty. Their opposition to Moty was based on concerns about governmental transparency, fiscal accountability, and his support for upholding state COVID mandates in the county.
Gorman, who was just elected to the Shasta County Board of Education this fall, used his speech to the board to discuss how COVID has affected student learning, referring to what he called a “disconnect” between school staff, the district and county education leadership on issues related to the pandemic, and calling on the community to actively come together, show up, and get involved.
“You guys have a big decision to make,” Gorman told the Board. “Listen to the staff, listen to the parents and do what’s right for the community. Bring them together. Vote for change and we’re going to build a brighter future for tomorrow.”
But other than Gorman, Lucero and Bridgeford, there was little evidence that anyone in the crowd wanted a vote for change. Instead, those listening to parents and staff last night heard overwhelming support for Gateway’s current superintendent, including what they described as his hands-off approach to pandemic restrictions.
Some said they might eventually welcome a change in leadership, but only after the Board had taken the time to get to know the District including its superintendent, staff and families.
Lisa Williams, a third grade teacher at Shasta Lake School, explained to the board how teachers are trained to create a safe and welcoming environment for students before calling out new members of the Board for creating the opposite effect with their leadership.
“When you three new board members came in you didn’t take the time to get to know us, the Gateway staff. Some of us have never met you and have no idea what your plan or your agenda was. . . Instead of coming in and taking over why didn’t you come in and meet the staff, why didn’t you come to all the schools and get to know us. Your plan to fire Jim is very upsetting to many of us. Why not come in and get to know him? Why not work with him and his staff?”
After more than an hour of public comment, the Board recessed to closed session to discuss Harrell’s evaluation and potential dismissal. They reappeared after approximately an hour to report that they were unilaterally terminating Harrell, effective immediately, without cause.
The statement drew gasps and cries of outrage from the crowd, who immediately called for a roll-call vote. Clifford and both Haynes voted for the dismissal, while incumbents Wallace and Lewis voted against.
After the vote, Lewis read a pre-written statement to the rest of the Board, expressing his dismay with the Board’s actions and his support for the current superintendent. Wallace expressed similar sentiments, stating, “I would agree 100% with what Mr. Lewis said. I have seen nothing, and like Phil, I had hoped that when you came onto the board you would watch and see how things worked before you take drastic action as you have done.”
After the termination announcement, Harrell immediately raised a clarifying question about whether he was being fired with cause or placed on paid administrative leave pending details of his severance package and telling the Board President he could not be terminated unless he was being fired with cause. Shortly afterwards he called for the audience to leave peacefully: “please do not approach them,” he said, “that will only make it worse.”
The Board’s policies and Harrell’s contract agreement both appear to allow him to be terminated without cause, but state that a decision to do so requires the District to pay his salary and health benefits for the remainder of the term of his contract agreement or twelve months, whichever is less.
Harrell’s most recent contract amendment is dated October 2022, which is when he returned from a leave of absence. No new contract end date is specified in that amendment, indicating that the end date remains at June 30, 2023. The amendment includes a salary increase of 8.5% to bring Harrell’s new annual salary to just under $180,000. His first contract with the board, signed in 2012, was for $135,000 per year.
The Board appointed Steven Henson, who also recently served as interim school superintendent during Harrell’s leave of absence, as Acting Superintendent for the district.
After the meeting, Lindsi Haynes declined to explain the reasons for her vote to Shasta Scout, but spoke with community members, saying that she wants what’s best for every child in the district and that politics have no business in school. Asked by a member of the audience after the meeting why she was going against the wishes of staff, Haynes pushed back.
“This to me,” she said, gesturing to the crowd, “is not everybody in the District. I’m not discrediting anybody that showed up tonight, but to say that any choices that were made is disregarding every employee is very unfair,” she emphasized saying “We’re willing to talk to people and work with people.”
Elias Haynes, who was standing next to her, added his thoughts: “We’ve also got performance evals and surveys and stuff from over 100 employees in the district and they aren’t as favorable . . .” New board members gave no other indications either during or after the meeting of what concerns led them to vote Harrell out of his position.
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