Parents, Staff, Former Student Show Up As Gateway School Board Reverses Prior Action On Superintendent Recruitment

The Board’s actions came in response to a legal warning from the California Teachers Association about alleged public transparency violations. About 70 community members attended the meeting.
Louis Gustafson (Issawi) was one of the parents present at a January 12 meeting of the Gateway Unified School District Board.

1.13.23 6:36 pm: We have updated this article to correctly enumerate Shasta County school districts. We’ve also added information about the Gateway Board’s upcoming meeting to the end of the article.

For Louis Gustafson, showing up to a hastily-called January 12 special meeting of the Gateway Union School District Board was non-negotiable. 

Gustafson, who is a member of the Issawi, or Pit River, Tribe, said he attended the meeting because of a persistent rumor that newly-seated members of the Gateway Board fired the District’s long-standing Superintendent in order to replace him with Bryan Caples, who unsuccessfully ran for County Superintendent of Education in the June primary this year.

That rumor, which has been reported in multiple media outlets, has not been officially confirmed by anyone on the Gateway Board or within the Gateway District. But showing up to the special board meeting on January 12 was still important, Gustafson said.

“If the rumor is true,” he explained, “I would be negligent not to be here.”

Gateway School District has the third-highest population of Native students within Shasta County’s 24 school districts. And Gustafson said he’s primarily concerned about openly racist statements against Native students made by Caples during a public debate earlier this year, including his insinuations that Native students are dangerous and that they should be segregated from other learners within county schools. 

“We’re in a day and age,” Gustafson said of Caples’ past comments, “where that kind of speech should not be accepted and people need to be held accountable.” 

Gustafson also noted Caples’ concerning work history, which includes a series of terminations from other districts and which recently resulted in a temporary suspension of Caples’ California state administrative credential. 

While the possibility of Caples being hired is a rumor, it’s clear that the Gateway Board has charted a highly unusual course since Board President Cherill Clifford, Vice President Lindsi Haynes, and Clerk Elias Haynes joined the Board over the last several months. 

On December 14 after Clifford and Lindsi Haynes were sworn into office, new Board members voted themselves into positions of power on the Board and then agreed to change future meeting times and dates. On December 20 the same three Board members voted to terminate long-standing district Superintendent Jim Harrell without cause. And on January 4 the Board voted, without taking any public comment, or referring to the Board’s own policy, on first steps to recruit a new superintendent.

Two days after the last Board meeting, members received a legal warning from the California Teachers Association (CTA), which represents credentialed Gateway staff, alleging multiple violations of California’s Brown Act.

CTA attorney Jacob Rukeyser’s letter to the Board alleged that members violated California’s public transparency law both by failing to hear public comment prior to a vote and by conducting whispered conversations while conducting public meetings. Rukeyser referred to the Board’s actions as “profoundly undemocratic and unlawful” and said the actions made “a mockery” of the public’s right to transparency under the Brown Act.

After a closed session with legal counsel, the Board voted unanimously to invalidate their previous actions on superintendent recruitment and to cease and desist from any future alleged violations of the Brown Act.

Immediately afterwards, Board incumbent Phil Lewis questioned his fellow Board members as to whether they had violated the Brown Act in any ways other than those cited by the CTA. All responded that they had not. 

The Board did not discuss alternate methods of superintendent recruitment during the meeting.  

Around 70 parents, teachers, community members, and at least one former student showed up to witness the Board’s actions. Some wondered aloud why the Board had chosen to hold the special meeting during school hours when parents and teachers are least likely to be able to attend, reminding Board members that they voted just last month to hold meetings at night for increased transparency.

Anna Lewis, who serves in the U.S. military, said in her public comment to the Board that she grew up in Gateway schools and was the Board’s first student representative.

Lewis asked to Board to make their Brown Act violations right by sharing with the public what transpired during whispered conversations in the last Board meeting. In response, President Clifford explained that she couldn’t remember “every word” that was said but the conversations were related to what was going on at the time.

“You’re a publicly elected official at a public meeting,” Lewis countered.

“I’m a human being,” Clifford responded, raising her voice, “Don’t pull this on me.” 

Former Gateway student Board representative Anna Lewis confronts Board President Cherill Clifford during a special Board meeting on January 12, 2023. Click the red arrow to play.

Gustafson told Shasta Scout he intends to remain involved in the Board’s discussions about superintendent recruitment moving forward. If the Board did decide to hire Caples as Superintendent, Gustafson said, he would encourage other Native parents to join him in putting financial pressure on the District by removing their kids from Gateway schools.

“I would certainly not want to participate, be a part of the system, the machine, if it’s going to be filled with people who are like Caples,” Gustafson said. “I would advocate for all Native students to pull out and hopefully that would make real change.”

The Gateway Board will hold its next open session meeting on January 18 at 5 pm at the District Office Board Room located at 4411 Mountain Lakes Blvd in Redding. The Board’s agenda, which can be found here, includes multiple items related to superintendent recruitment, selection and employment.

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