EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated since its publication. Updated areas are indicated by italicized text.
Three candidates are running for the Visalia Unified School District Area 5 seat – two have never held, nor run for any public office; one has served on the school board before. Donna Martin, who has held the seat since being elected in 2003, decided not to run for re-election.
The first time candidates are Patricia Griswold and Michael Washam.
The third candidate, Niessen Foster, was elected to the board in 2000 and served until mid-year 2002, when he resigned.
In a recent interview Foster said, he resigned to make a point for what he felt was right. The point was, he said, was that he felt that the then superintendent, administration and board were breaking California laws with regard to teacher labor contracts.
“We take an oath when we sign up to run and when elected, to defend the laws, which include labor contracts,” he said. “And, that was not taken care of – that violated and abused [the laws] and I resigned.”
A Previous Resignation
Previously, in a hand-written letter addressed “To the Wonderful Citizens of Visalia,” Foster cited personal reasons for his resignation.
“Regretfully, I must resign due to personal reasons,” he wrote. “To leave my wonderful governance team at this time is painful. I have never served with such a wonderful group of people.”
The letter was dated June 20, 2002, giving an official resignation date of June 28, 2002.
This move could have cost the district up to $34,000, having to be a quickly-made addition to the November, 2002 ballot, or to hold a special election to fill the seat. Board members, however, decided to make an appointment to fill the vacancy. During a special board meeting on August 19, Laura Pace was appointed the interim position.
More Letters and Newspaper Accounts
Public records reveal a disturbance in the board and with VUSD staff in the days, perhaps weeks or longer, leading up to Foster’s resignation with discussion behind the doors of closed board meetings.
“They [the board] were going to fire three teachers, who, they said, were guilty of desertion,” Foster said during the recent interview. “These people had the intent of coming back. I protested – I am not a potted plant, I am in an independent person. They [the board] were union busting, which is also illegal.”
The three teachers Foster refers to were not fired, he said.
“I actually saved their jobs,” he said. “They [the board] retracted it [the firings]. They [the board] didn’t want the publicity. The superintendent didn’t tell the whole story – these people were smarter than the superintendent – he wanted to get rid of them.”
In a letter addressed to Kay Van Andel, then assistant superintendent of human resources development, and dated May 30, 2002, Foster had written an apology, prior to his resignation.
“I am writing this letter to apologize to you personally, for my unprofessional and shameful conduct,” he wrote. “It is truly unbecoming of a Board Member and an elected official.
“My conduct was very wrong and inexcusable. It was not kind nor Christlike. I write this letter with deep remorse.”
Just what conduct is unclear to those outside of its occurrence, and outside the doors of closed board meetings. Speculation still runs amok, but the exact facts are not part of the public record.
In yet another letter, also dated May 30, 2002, Foster wrote to Board Clerk Larry Jones, “I am writing to apologize for doing one of the stupidest acts of my life. My conduct was unprofessional and shameful.”
Foster went on to say, “My conduct toward Kay was wrong and inexcusable. Needless to say, it was not kind. It was bad and totally inappropriate.”
In an article published in the Visalia Times-Delta following Foster’s resignation, it was reported,
“However, in a telephone interview with the Times-Delta, Foster said that his resignation was caused by disputes over labor issues and said that he had been threatened with legal action for revealing information discussed at closed board meetings.”
In a subsequent article, the Times-Delta reported Foster said, “What he called an illegal closed-door discussion by the school board of an employee personnel matter led ultimately to his resignation.”
The article went on to say Foster felt the board was discussing disciplinary matters regarding two officers of the district’s teachers union, and that, according to the state’s open meeting act, the officers should have been notified of the issues prior to board discussions on the matter.
“Foster said he believed it was an example of the school district administration and board, ‘playing hardball’ with employees,” the Times-Delta reported.
“’They like squashing little people,’ he said.
“That, Foster said, is why he told one of the union leaders what Van Andel had said and why, he said, Carrizosa and school district board members drove him out. Continuing as a board member, he said, would have been ‘untenable.’”
Public Statements from Superintendent and Board Members
Foster was not the only one to issue statements at the time.
A public statement issued on July 2, 2002, by then VUSD Superintendent Stan Carrizosa stated, in part, “First, I want to say that this is difficult for me because Niessen and I have been very close. The situation that has prompted Niessen’s resignation was never about the union or union issues. It is a matter of Boardsmanship between he and his fellow elected officials and upholding the public trust. The issue has been one of confidence among board members, abiding by their Board Bylaws and board adopted Professional Governance Standards and preserving confidential information.”
And, in a public statement to VUSD and the Community of Visalia, then Board President Rob Stephenson, and Board Clerk Larry Jones stated, “Niessen Foster’s resignation from the board was his own decision. His sudden hostility toward his fellow board members is contrary to all of public words, actions and behaviors as a board member over the past twelve months. Mr. Foster was apparently feeling some pressure in his role as a board member, but it was not imposed on him by other members of the board or governance team.”
Opinions Voiced Now
Two current board members were on the board during this time.
Current Board Trustee Juan Guerrero declined to comment on the 2002 events, stating that discussions made in closed session are confidential. He did, however, say, “While Mr. Foster served as a school board [member], he was involved and very effective. I believe that he should have served his full term, but he decided not to finish his term. I believe that all current school board candidates have much to offer and wish them well in this election. Any of the three, I believe, would do a good job.”
“My question is why did you quit?” Jim Qualls, a board trustee, then and now, said.
Qualls, too, was reluctant to discuss the situation, but did say he felt that as a candidate once again for a district seat, Foster should answer the question, “Give me a good reason – why did you resign?”
Foster has now answered the question raised by Qualls, and said he resigned because he felt the board and administration were acting unlawfully. He was making a point, he said, and couldn’t support what the board was doing.
In a letter to the Visalia Times-Delta, dated July 2, 2002, Qualls wrote, in part:
“. . . I would like to comment on several issues and comments made by Niessen Foster in the VTD and Fresno Bee during the past several days regarding his resignation.
“I was present at the meetings that have been referenced. The discussions referenced in Foster’s comments were always conducted in a professional, sensitive and supportive way. I was actually very impressed with the way Stan Carrizosa and the other Board Members handled themselves over Foster’s indiscretion and his breech of confidentiality issues. Foster has never spoken to the Board about feeling pressure or stress and was complimentary to all involved when he voluntarily stated he chose to resign.”
Qualls further went on to say, “The decision to resign was made entirely by Foster himself who, at the time he choose to resign, admitted to his indiscretion and accepted the responsibility for his actions.”
Again, just what were the “indiscretion” and the “actions” Foster performed are not fully known to the public.
Repeated attempts to reach Foster for comment regarding his current candidacy and his former resignation from the board, have received no response.
The Voice also reached out to Carrizosa, now Superintendent of College of the Sequoias, without response.
Support and Endorsement
Retired Assistant Superintendent Mark Fulmer is supportive of Foster’s current candidacy and endorses him. Fulmer was an assistant superintendent in 2002 and privy to the incidents leading up to Foster’s resignation.
“I know Niessen – he’s an honest guy,” Fulmer said. “It was his first time serving. He was struggling to do the right thing [at the time of his resignation].
“He has a sincere interest in the community and is very straight forward. He has no personal agenda.”
Fulmer added, “He has grown in his understanding of how things work and I appreciate that.”
VUSD Superintendent Todd Oto was vice principal of Redwood High School in 2002. As such, while he knew the members of the board, he was not apprised with much of the board agenda and has no personal knowledge of the incident. Today, as superintendent, he recently met with all three of the candidates.
“We had a great meeting,” he said. “They all seemed very committed. They are sincere candidates, who want to move the district forward.”
The Candidates Reasons for Running
“I wasn’t planning to run,” Foster said. “Because the incumbent decided not to run, many people encouraged me to run.”
Foster said, truancy, an increase in vocational education, and a reduction in classroom sizes are issues he’d like to work on.
“Kids are missing two to three periods, and it’s costing $21 million in the county, $1 million in Visalia,” he said. “If we could just round up these little ankle biters [students missing class], we’d have more money to spend things such as music classes, etc.”
“What led me to run is my desire to ensure sure that every child in every neighborhood of Visalia has equal access to the high-quality education they deserve,” Michael Washam said. “Specifically, as growth continues and new schools are built, I want to make certain our existing “legacy” schools are not neglected.”
Washam is employed as the Tulare County’s Resource Management Agency’s planning director.
“I reject a one-size-fits-all approach to education and support options for learning, including charter schools, career and technical education, linked learning academies, home-schooling, online learning and early college high schools,” he added.
“I had been tossing it around for a while,” Patricia Griswold said. “When Donna [Martin] decided not to run, I thought it was time.”
Griswold is a special education teacher with the Tulare County Office of Education. She does teach in Visalia, but is not employed by VUSD. She spoke with many people as to whether there might be any conflict of interest seen in her serving on the VUSD board, and no one thought it would be an issue, she said. She in endorsed by Donna Martin, the current trustee for Area 5.
“I decided to run for school board because education is my passion and I believe that all students deserve an education that prepares them for life in the 21st century,” she added.
The three candidate’ fates will be decided in the November 8 election. Public records mentioned in the article — including the letters — are available below.