Blessed with an agile mind and the right political affiliation, a 25-year-old church secretary and events planner recently was appointed to the La Mesa-Spring Valley school board.
Rebekah Basson — who registered to vote a day after the seat’s application deadline — is one of the youngest school board members in the state.
“The world is my oyster,” she said of her decision to apply for a vacant seat. “That’s a mind-set … a lot of people my age have.”
Basson said another secretary she met through her events work at Foothills Christian Church in El Cajon mentioned the school-board opening, “and so I kind of figured that I would give it a go” despite having lived in the district only 1 1/2 years as an adult.
On Facebook, her retired Navy father asked for prayers on her behalf. Later that week, Aug. 3, a conservative majority of the board granted his wish, choosing Basson after interviews and debate to replace Republican stalwart Rick Winet. Board president Emma Turner dissented.
(Winet resigned in June after 19 years on the board, because he took a new job that created a conflict of interest, said schools Superintendent Brian Marshall.)
In picking Basson, the panel rejected Jay Steiger, 49, a school volunteer with deep experience in the 12,325-student K-8 district who had letters of recommendation from county Supervisor Dianne Jacob and three members of the La Mesa City Council.
Also denied were longtime educator and recently retired teachers union leader Paul Schnaubelt, 62; corporate lawyer Helen Yapura-Weiler, 45, who also speaks Spanish and Italian; and career educator Dwight Sykes, 65, who once won a School Futures Principal of The Year award.
How did Basson, with little experience in public schools, arrive atop a 21-school district with an annual budget of $125 million? The story is one of sharp interviewing skills and political ideology. And a little luck.
But first her background.
Basson, who married 2016 Foothills Christian High School graduate Wyatt Basson in December, was born at Balboa Naval Hospital in 1992 and attended Christ Lutheran School in La Mesa. (She lived at the base of Mount Helix.)
At 12, she and her family (parents Paul and Bonnie Winfree and a brother) moved to Georgia to help Bonnie’s father when he was having health problems, Basson said in an interview.
She attended a Christian school at first but transferred to public Ola High School in McDonough, Georgia. Ola Principal David Shedd told Times of San Diego that Rebekah Winfree attended the school from 2006 to 2008.
“I ended up finishing at Strong Rock Christian School” in Locust Grove, Georgia, she said.
According to school officials and her board application, Basson earned nearly straight A’s at Truett McConnell University, a private Christian school in Cleveland, Georgia, from August 2010 through December 2011.
“Her declared major while attending was history,” said school Registrar Melissa Fortner. “She achieved the President’s List [in] spring 2011 and the Dean’s List [in] fall 2011.”
Two months after turning 18 in 2010, Rebekah Ann Winfree registered as a Republican in Georgia, where she would vote five times, including in the November 2016 presidential election, according to Henry County elections coordinator Luane Fesmire. For most of 2011, she was an intern for GOP Rep. Paul Broun, who left Congress in 2015.
After TMU, she attended 4,000-student Gordon State College in Barnesville, Georgia — part of the Georgia public university system — pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history. (She was named to the spring 2013 Dean’s List.) She went to the University of Georgia for a brief time, before returning to California.
Finally, in May 2016, Basson earned a bachelor’s degree in theology at Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta after working in 2015 as a marketer and secretary for Farmers Insurance and a summer job as a restaurant hostess at the Hotel del Coronado.
Basson was the first to answer eight questions by the La Mesa-Spring Valley school board on Aug. 3 as her rivals for the $400-a-month role waited their turn in a “green room.”
In her introduction, Basson recalled being a nanny to a little girl in Georgia with Down syndrome who made amazing progress via special-education classes at her local public school.
“Seeing Jordan’s experience at the public school helped me realize that public education is a necessity, and public schools are the foundation of our community,” Basson said, according to an 18,000-word transcript of the meeting. “My [20-year-old] husband and I don’t have any children of our own yet, but if we did, our children would be at Murdock Elementary.”
Schools chief Marshall was impressed, saying Basson presented herself “very, very well” and “did a great job in the interview.”
But she technically wasn’t eligible to apply, since she wasn’t a registered voter in the district at the time she signed her application July 23. She blamed a mix-up involving the DMV.
“When I moved out here, and changed my driver’s license, I thought that when I checked the box on my driver’s license — ‘would you like us to update your information, your voter information,’ and so I thought that [was sufficient],” she said in a half-hour interview at a La Mesa Starbucks. “Of course, I figured that out and changed it.”
San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu provided a document that indicated Basson registered July 25 — a day after the board deadline, where her application said: “I certify I am a registered voter in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District and that I reside within the … school district boundaries.”
She signed just below the sentence: “I attest the foregoing information is true to the best of my knowledge.”
Responding to a query, schools chief Marshall on Sunday said: “We discovered that Rebekah was not a registered voter [during a check of applications] and contacted her to let her know,” he said. “She was truly surprised by the information.”
Marshall said he also contacted the school-district attorney, who noted the law states that a board member — not an applicant — must be a registered voter.
District policy “was contradictory to the law,” Marshall acknowledged, so it will be changed before any future appointment.
“Therefore we permitted her to register to vote and included her in the applicant pool,” he said. “I believe that when Rebekah signed the form ‘to the best of her knowledge,’ she was a registered voter due to her checking the box at the DMV.
“She was a registered voter when she interviewed with the board and, as required by the law, when she assumed the vacant seat.”
Marshall said he’s received only two complaints about the unlikely pick — from Democrat Steiger, a candidate for the seat in 2010, 2012 and 2016, and architect Gerald “Jerry” Lecko, a former appointed school board member who lost his bid for election (and so far is the lone filer for the November 2018 ballot).
“I don’t feel or see that the selection of Rebekah in any way, shape or form is about a lack of experience,” Marshall said. “I see it as a different window — a different experience that she’s bringing to the school board.”
Board members David Chong and Jim Long saw her party membership as pivotal — saying they wanted to replace Republican Winet with someone of the same philosophy. They also noted Steiger’s failure to win a seat in three tries (losing to entrenched incumbents mostly).
In seconding Chong’s nomination of Basson, Long said she “closely matches” the views of an elected member the voters chose in November — himself. (He took second to Turner in the race for two seats.)
Chong, an author and gun-shop owner, called Basson “unknown to me” with no PTA credits.
“And her answers to these questions were not all perfect, but all came from the same place I come from, philosophically, on the approach to education. That’s important to me,” he said. “We had – we lost – our most conservative, most outspoken voice on this board with Member Winet’s departure.”
Chong later added: “While all voices are healthy to be heard on a collaborative board, that seat was held by a strong social and fiscal conservative.”
Board president Turner objected to the affiliation argument.
“I don’t mean any offense to Rick [Winet], because he and I are still friends,” said Turner, who is African-American. “But he is gone, and it’s not his seat — his name’s not written on it. It’s a seat on the board, OK? And so, it just needs to be filled by someone who’s committed to our children, our district, and knows the issues and willing to serve right now. Able to serve right now. Capable of serving right now. That’s Jay [Steiger].”
Board member Long said he agreed “to those pieces, but I don’t think that distinguishes Mr. Steiger from Ms. Basson. I think she represents someone who is here. She answered the questions on the application, and I would say from those answers, I had my doubts.”
But real-estate broker Long called Basson “poised and ready to answer every one of those [in-person] questions, having no knowledge of any of the questions” while other candidates “didn’t answer them as well as she did.”
Board member Bob Duff, 78, noted he had a granddaughter Basson’s age, but argued she was old enough to take on the job and prove she could win in November 2018.
“If we are usurping the public’s chance of taking this in, to effect, picking a particular person, it remains to be seen whether she would be electable,” said Duff, who earlier had nominated Schnaubelt (but failed to get a second to the motion). “But she’ll have that challenge if she is. So with that fact, I’ll call for the question.”
Then 2 1/2 hours into the meeting, witnessed by 15-20 people, the board voted 3-1 to appoint Basson.
Three weeks later on Facebook, Steiger vented: “To place someone with no background or knowledge of public education in such an important and crucial role simply because they ‘fit’ an ideological direction is counter to the spirit of nonpartisan school boards and does not show respect for the civic expectation that board members will have life experiences and skills needed for the demands and gravitas of this role.”
Steiger said that if political affiliation were an issue for board members, “there were other options besides choosing the least experienced candidate. For three members of this board to make such an obviously ideological decision was not in the spirit of the guidelines for California public school boards and of local government in general.”
Steiger later added via email: “Mrs. Basson did not mention political parties or affiliations during her interview, but three of the board members felt she was the right ‘fit’ to replace a strident political and social conservative.”
Steiger said he had no personal criticism of Basson.
“During my brief conversations with her, she appeared to be a bright, kind and caring person,” he said. “I, equally, have no personal critique of any of the board members. I disagree with their decision-making rationale and choice.”
But Steiger also pushed back against the notion that the board was “representing the will of the voters in their appointment choice.”
Voters, he said, “are a diverse group, and electoral results can be challenging to predict.”
Schanubelt didn’t respond to a Times request for comment, but he told the board: “Yes, I intend to run in 2018. I’ve already put together some of the pieces of that puzzle in order to run.” [Chong and Duff have yet to publicly say whether they’ll run for re-election in 2018, Marshall said.]
Republican pressure to appoint a Republican to a school board isn’t new.
In 2006, according to Voice of San Diego, the president of the San Diego County Board of Education said she was “threatened” with electoral opposition if she didn’t appoint another Republican to replace resigned board member Ernie Dronenburg.
Susan Hartley, the board president, said Rick Otis, a former member of San Diego County’s Republican Party Central Committee, phoned her to say he would find a candidate to run against her if she didn’t take his advice on one of 11 candidates to serve out Dronenburg’s term.
Otis wanted her to support La Mesa-Spring Valley’s Rick Winet.
“I did contact her,” Otis told Voice of San Diego. “I told her that Rick Winet would have been a good appointment. That would be the proper move for a Republican – to appoint another Republican. Unfortunately, she didn’t do that.”
Four were named finalists (not including Winet) and Democrat Sharon Jones, another trustee of the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, won the appointment.
Troy Flint, a spokesman for the California School Boards Association, told Times of San Diego that twentysomething board members seem to be rare.
“Age data from the CSBA Census done at our 2014 annual conference indicated there were 17 board members between 18-24 years old at that time,” Flint said. “That accounted for only 0.85 percent of all board members included in the census.”
Although his group doesn’t track the ages of school-board members, he noted that 22-year-old Samuel Medina was appointed in April to fill a vacancy on the San Lorenzo Unified School District board in Alameda County.
Basson said she was “very much surprised by the appointment. … I knew that I was definitely the youngest person. So yeah — I was definitely surprised as well. But my intention was just to give it my best and all I had.”
First of two parts.