By Mark Gutglueck
Trustee Marcy Kittinger resigned her position on the Hesperia Unified School District Board on February 15 in the midst of an escalating effort by a contingent of Hesperia residents to break up the current version of the ruling coalition that has dominated the district for more than a decade.
Kittinger’s departure came more than two months after an effort to recall her from office was initiated and then dropped, and less than two weeks after a public revelation that she no longer owns a home within the district. Kittinger maintains she has remained a resident within the district’s boundaries by renting a home in the area she was elected to serve. She says she intended to stay in that residence until she completed her second term in November.
Kittinger’s recent and long-term experience on the school board, on which she has served for more than seven years, is best understood in context.
Hesperia is a community that has historically been dominated by Republican politics, which extended to its city council, its school board, its park and recreation board, and its former fire and water district boards, despite all of those entities being cataloged under California law as nonpartisan entities. In San Bernardino County, all elections are heavily influenced by partisan politics.
Over the last decade, Eric Swanson, has held sway over the board and thereby the district. Swanson was first elected to the school board in 2001 and served five years, having been voted off the board in 2006 in the aftermath of the California Charter Academy Scandal. The mishandling of finances at the California Charter Academy resulted in criminal charges being lodged against that entity’s founder, Charles Steven Cox, and Tad Honeycutt, who managed a for-profit subsidiary company, Everything For Schools, which was a vendor of both services and supplies to the nonprofit schools run by the academy. Cox and Honeycutt made off with some $40 million in state education money provided to the academy before a state audit resulted in the shutdown of the operation in 2004. Swanson had been a board member of three of the four schools run by the California Charter Academy before leaving those positions on June 30, 2001, slightly more than four months prior to his election to the Hesperia School District Board of Trustees. The same day as his resignation from the California Charter Academy boards, through a deal engineered by Cox and Honeycutt, Swanson’s information services company had obtained a no-bid $700,000 contract for computer systems.
In 2007, Cox and Honeycutt were criminally charged with a total of 117 felonies, including fraud, embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds relating to the California Charter Academy debacle. There were multiple delays in the matter going to trial, as the different attorneys representing both defendants sought to exit from the case, most notably Cox’s attorney, Earl Wade Schinder, who committed suicide. At some point, Honeycutt, who, during the heyday of the California Charter Academy had gone abroad and secreted millions of dollars of his share of the loot from the charter academy swindle into bank accounts in Spain, Brazil and Vanuatu, slipped out of the country and is living abroad under the name of Ted Viera as an international fugitive. Because prosecutors and Cox’s defense team do not want to start the California Charter Academy criminal proceedings without Honeycutt, the trial has not yet begun, more than 14 years after the case against Cox and Honeycutt was filed.
Revelations about Swanson’s profiteering as a vendor to the same charter academy for which he was a board member was a key factor in his inability to be reelected to the Hesperia Unified School District Board in 2006 and his failed effort at election to the same board in 2008.
In 2010, however, memory of the California Charter Academy scandal had dimmed somewhat. Assisted by an unusually large field of 14 candidates in that year’s school board race, Swanson managed to place second, with 4,505 votes or 11 percent, which netted him a return to office. Among his competitors that year was Kittinger, who capture 2,824 votes or 6.9 percent, which put her in fifth place. That was not sufficient to win her a position on the board, but she did outperform nine of the candidates in that contest, which saw the three top vote-getters elected.
In 2012, Kittinger competed once more, this time in a field of four for two posts that were up for election. She finished third, with 20.46 percent of the vote.
Two years later, Kittinger made her third attempt for an opportunity to oversee the district, this time in a field of six vying for three positions. She polled 5,787 votes of a total 26,499 cast or 21.84 percent, coming in second place behind Swanson who received 5,827 votes or 21.99 percent.
She was welcomed onto the board, which then consisted of Swanson, Niccole Childs, Cody Gregg and Ella Rogers.
An element of local politics in far-flung 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County and particularly in the heavily Republican desert region of the county is the importance assigned to the ability of the institutions of government to provide earning opportunities for the population at large. Governments, which include school districts, water districts and cities and towns, serve as employers of local residents and a cash cow for vendors, contractors and service providers. An important distinction between the differing factions of Republicans who hold the lion’s share of the political offices in San Bernardino County pertains to the attitude that those who make up those factions have with regard to the economic opportunity government provides. One faction holds that government exists fundamentally to provide services to residents and citizens, such that in the case of a school district its first priority should be the education of the students that lie within the district’s boundaries. The second faction lives by the credo that local government exists as much to contribute to the local economy as it does to provide services to its constituents, such that a major feature of government, including school districts, is to provide employment to a good share of the populace and simultaneously purchase the goods and services local businesses have to sell and offer. For Swanson, the Hesperia Unified School District serves the greater Hesperia area, including the nearly 73-square miles within Hesperia’s city limits and the city’s sphere of influence extending into adjoining Oak Hills, both by educating its youth and employing the district’s 2,269 employees, of whom 982 are teaching faculty, as well as by serving as a consumer of goods and paying for the professional services offered by entrepreneurs in the area.
Nevertheless, stark voting differences between school board members occur in only a relative minority of votes, as roughly 85 percent of school district issues are decided on 5-0 votes or unanimous agreement among all board members present.
Once elected, Kittinger sought to fit in on the district board. She seemed to naturally hew to Swanson’s side of the philosophical divide whenever differences between board members manifested, yet not in an absolutist sense, occasionally voting with Rogers and Gregg on issues where there was a division on the board.
In 2016, Gregg and Rogers were reelected in what would be the district’s last at-large election.
In 2018, Kittinger was elected to represent the Hesperia Unified School District’s Area 2 in what was the district’s first vote by electoral division. Swanson was chosen to represent the district’s Area 3 and Mark Dundon was elected in Area 5.
That same year, there was a degree of upheaval in the city politically, as then-Mayor Russ Blewett died in May, and Jeremiah Brosowske was appointed to replace him. Brosowske was an acolyte of Bill Postmus. Postmus was a former member of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors representing the High Desert in the early 2000s and the chairman of the Republican Central Committee whose involvement in pay-to-play politics had led to his fall from grace shortly after the full-blown exposure of the California Charter Academy scandal. Postmus was linked to the California Charter Academy by means of substantial amounts of money under the control of Cox that were supposed to be used for the academy’s educational mission being diverted to his campaign fund. Postmus managed to avoid being criminally charged in the California Charter Academy affair. He was less fortunate in other regards however, and in 2009 and 2010 prosecutors rang him up on 14 felony political corruption charges, ranging from conspiracy to misappropriation of public funds to fraud to bribery to conflict of interest by a public official, with eight of those relating to his time as supervisor and six pertaining to the roughly two years he served in the capacity of county assessor in 2007 and 2008.
Ten years after that, in the 2018 election season, Postmus had made a bid to make a vicarious political comeback through Brosowke and the perpetuation of the political tenure of another of his political associates, Hesperia Councilman Paul Russ. Postmus had failed to leave behind him the pay-to-play political approach that had led to his earlier demise, and Russ’s 2018 bid to remain as member of the Hesperia City Council was thwarted by Cody Gregg’s older brother Cameron, who defeated Russ in the city’s first by-district election held that year when they competed head-to-head in Hesperia’s District 3. Brosowske managed to achieve a narrow, come-from-behind victory in the city’s District 4 race over Brigit Bennington. Within a year, however, efforts by Postmus to elevate Brosowske even further politically, including engineering for him an appointment to a quarter-of-a-million-dollar annual compensation position with the West Valley Water Agency in lower San Bernardino County taken together with other networking moves involving the development industry in return for concessions on housing density and development standards, alienated Brosowske from all of the other members of the city council with the exception of Eric Swanson’s wife, Rebekah, who had been elected to the city council in 2016 with Postmus’s assistance.
There ensued a battle royal for the soul of Hesperia among its political class. In September 2019, based upon what the balance of the city council considered to be convincing evidence that Brosowske was not in fact living in Hesperia, he was removed from the city council. Rebekah Swanson and Brosowske dissented in that vote.
As a member of the Hesperia Unified School District Board of Trustees, Kittinger found herself in the middle of this political maelstrom. Her association with Swanson and very presence on the board put her into the political fray, no matter which way she voted. As it turned out, in 2020 Ella Rogers was displaced from the board because, with the change from at-large to by-district voting, she did not live in either Area 1 or Area 4, where the district’s elections were being held that year. That November, Cody Gregg was retained on the board as the representative of District 4 and Maria Gomez was elected to represent District 1.
At the district from that point out, the momentum was with Eric Swanson, as Dundon, Gomez and more often than not Kittinger sided with him on votes where sharp differences existed among members of the board. Cody Gregg had grown more isolated than ever before.
In early 2020, the COVID-19 epidemic infected its way into Southern California, escalating into a pandemic by late March and early April. Mandates from Sacramento put an end to open public gatherings and meetings, such as those held by local governing boards.
In July 2020, Kittinger and her husband, Brian, quietly sold their home in Oak Hills. That abode was her residence of record, the one at which she was registered to vote and thereby qualified her to run for, and upon being elected, serve as the representative of the residents of the School District’s Area 2. Her husband, according to Kittinger, moved the family household, including their son, Daniel, to a home in Hayden, Idaho at that time. She remained behind, taking up residence in a rental on Yosemite Street, which lies within Area 2. She continued to represent Area 2 on the board.
After Governor Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19-related mandates in 2020, the district offered its board members the option of attending the district’s board meetings in person or participating remotely, using the Zoom teleconferencing system.
Kittinger remotely attended the July 13, 2020; August 3, 2020; September 14, 2020; October 5, 2020; November 2, 2020; December 14, 2020; January 25, 2021; March 1, 2021, March 8, 2021, June 21, 2021; and September 27, 2021 meetings.
Kittinger was physically present at the January 11, 2021; February 8, 2021; April 5, 2021; May 3, 2021; May 24, 2021; June 7, 2021; June 14, 2021; August 2, 2021; August 16, 2021, August 21, 2021, September 13, 2021; October 4, 2021; October 25, 2021; November 8, 2021, December 13, 2021, January 10, 2022 and January 12, 2022 meetings.
In the fall of 2021, a group of activists in Hesperia, perhaps in anticipation of the 2022 election cycle, began to step up their political activity, including making attacks on Swanson, Dundon, Kittinger and Gomez. In November, a group of Hesperia residents initiated a recall effort against the four. Those signing onto that effort included Jeremy Lynn, Jerrilyn Pike, Bill Holland, Lynnette Holland, William Holland, Nathaniel Pike, Joshua Lopez, Kathy Lopez, Jose Lopez, Kristen DeWittie, John Flemmer, Christina Flemmer, Mary Pelley, Robert Pelley, Lizette Holland, Andree Caballero, Darren Schreiner, Shanna Fait, William Fait, Stephanie Bravo, Fredrick Bravo, Stanley Olson, Esther Olson, Kayla Vazquez, Candice Hughes, Amber Casilla, Wendy Carlos, Chris Schultz, Jenny Roberts, Michelle Rios, Stephanie Bourque, Shawn Bourque, Bradley Willson, Elizabeth Wilson, April Manzo, Tiffany Vanstrien, Anthony Archuleta, MacKenzie Archuleta, Shawna Archuleta, Michelle Henriquez, Brigit Bennington, Morgan Tate, Jeff Bennington, Randy Lovewell, Diane Best, Kevin Best, Darlene Stevens, Dominic Glass, Wendy Glass, Lorie Cardillo, John Cardillo, Alyssa Carey, Lisa Sauer, Jennifer Sauer and Scott Smith.
Those seeking the recall of Kittinger, specifically, objected to her support, along with the three other members of the board, of precautions the district sought to implement in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily enforcing what the recall advocates characterized as “unlawful” mandates forcing vaccinations of all students and staff, “despite medical and religious exemptions or children having obtained natural immunity through illness recovery as has been a time-tested medical reality.”
Moreover, the recall proponents alleged, Kittinger “failed to protect and grow school staff to meet the dire needs of the students by forcing unlawful mandates and unproven invasive testing regimen, in an effort to remove any objections to said mandates.”
Recall proponents also took issue with the district’s action to utilize $141 million in government COVID-19 funds for awarding construction and infrastructure contracts to individuals described as the board members’ “closest friends and supporters.”
Ultimately, the recall proponents dropped the recall effort targeting Kittinger and Dundon, while electing to concentrate on Swanson and Gomez.
The recall effort nevertheless led to a circumstance that brought scrutiny to Kittinger that may have indirectly led to her decision to resign.
On November 15, 2021, both Swanson and Gomez attended the Association of San Bernardino County Special Districts meeting held in Yucaipa. Two days later, both were scheduled to take part as the district’s representatives at the November Hesperia Tri-Agency meeting.
The Tri-Agency referenced consists of the City of Hesperia, the Hesperia Recreation and Parks District and the Hesperia Unified School District. Swanson and Gomez were less than enthusiastic about attending that meeting, particularly since there were individuals involved in both the city and the recreation and park district who were among those gunning for their recall. They begged off, and sought to have Kittinger, the school district’s alternate representative, attend in their stead. Kittinger, however, was a no-show at the November 17 Hesperia Tri-Agency Meeting. That raised questions but had no immediate impact.
The January 10 meeting of the Hesperia Unified School District Board last month was abruptly adjourned some 11 minutes and 27 seconds after it began when some of those in attendance refused to comply with the California state mandate to wear masks within the board meeting room.
When the board readjourned in a specially-called meeting on January 12, the sole item on the agenda listed for action pertained to “continuing authority to hold virtual meetings.”
Consequently, Kelly Gregg, the father of School Board Member Cody Gregg and City Councilman Cameron Gregg, began to explore why the district was seeking that authority. According to Kelly Gregg, that inquiry took on more urgency after he was told that Kittinger was living out of state.
Shortly thereafter, Kelly Gregg said, he learned that Kittinger and her husband had sold their 2,453-square foot home on Blue Rose Lane in Oak Hills on July 3, 2020 for $550,000.
Kelly Gregg said he believed that Swanson and District Superintendent David Olney had long known that Kittinger was no longer living at the home where she was registered to vote.
At the district’s February 7, meeting, Kelly Gregg said, he was informed that Kittinger was living in Idaho. He carried out some research, Kelly Gregg said, obtaining documentation that Brian and Marcy Kittinger had purchased a home in Hayden, Idaho on July 24, 2020, and that they had obtained a homeowner’s exemption on the property which involved a declaration that the home, situated on .2673 of an acre on Hurricane Drive in Hayden in Kootenai County Idaho was their primary residence.
Kelly Gregg said he made a report of what he had learned to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. He offered his assessment that both Swanson and Gomez were seeking to keep knowledge of Kittinger’s move under wraps because Kittinger’s vote represented, joined with their votes, control over the board and the district. He said he believed Kittinger was residing almost exclusively in Idaho from July 2020 until March of 2021, during which time, with two exceptions, she attended the school board’s meetings remotely by Zoom.
Kelly Gregg said there are grounds to believe Board Member Gomez, who is now board president, made the effort to extend the authority to hold virtual meetings as a ploy to allow Kittinger to remain on the board and participate in the meetings by teleconference from Idaho. Ultimately, Kelly Gregg theorized, Swanson and Gomez were intent on allowing Kittinger to serve out two full terms as a board member, from 2014 until later this year, since serving two terms on a governmental agency board would render her eligible, under California law, to receive lifetime medical coverage for herself and her husband to be paid by the district. In exchange for that lifetime benefit, Kelly Gregg said, it appeared Kittinger was willing to vote to support Swanson’s agenda. It would be the option of the board to provide her that lifetime coverage by a vote, Gregg said. He noted that Swanson in the past had voted to extend such coverage to former board members Jack Hamilton and Lori Nielson because they had been aligned with him when they were on the board, and that Swanson had withheld extending that coverage to Ella Rogers because she had not seen eye-to-eye with him during the time they served together.
Marcy Kittinger said she was not aware of the district allowing lifetime benefits to school board members.
“As the district does not offer this,” Kittinger said, “I was neither going to receive this nor was I on the board to receive this. My intention was to complete my term to fulfill my obligation to the school community. Given the current dissension that has been caused by my need to travel frequently to Idaho to tend to my aging mother, I am stepping down to avoid distractions from the district’s essential work which is service to students.”
Kittinger disputed the contention that she was not living within the school district’s Area 2 for the past 19 months.
“I was living in Hesperia,” she insisted. “I was renting a place. I was living in Area 2. You can serve [in an elected capacity] as long as you reside within the district, the area where you are elected. You do not have to own property.”
Kittinger said that while “It is true we sold our house,” she continued to be a resident of the area and a citizen eligible to serve in an office she had been elected to.
As for the documentation relating to a primary residency in Idaho, Kittinger said, “That is something my husband filed. We were not living together at the time, because I was still here. California was my residence.”
The suggestion that she resigned her position with the district because her move to Idaho had been discovered “is not factual,” she said.
She is leaving California, Kittinger said, “because my mother is very ill. She was injured in a fall. She is living with my son and husband now. I am going up there to take care of her. I don’t know how much time with her I will have left. That is why I am leaving now. My priority is to be there to take care of my mom.”
She is not cutting and running from adversity at the district, she said, but did admit that things there have been contentious. “There are people who want to get rid of the superintendent,” she said. “They want to take the district in a different direction. They are attacking everyone who doesn’t agree with them.”
By Mark Gutglueck