As staff at the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) begin their plans for the city’s fifth high school, three new trustees on the city’s school board will guide their progress in the wake of the November 6 election.
Winners and Losers
Returning to the seven-member VUSD Governing Board is Board Clerk John Crabtree, who defeated challenger Mario Torres by more than 54 points to retain the Area 4 seat. Area 4 is the largest of the seven divisions in the district, covering the rural northwest portion, and it includes the construction site for the fifth high school voters also approved on Tuesday.
Incumbent Jim Qualls, however, lost his Area 3 seat to newcomer Joy Naylor. Also new to the Board are Walta Gamoian, who will serve as trustee for Area 1, and Niessen Foster, who will represent Area 5.
Assistant Superintendent Robert Gröeber says the VUSD team is ready to follow the newly constituted board’s lead.
“We work with whoever the community sends to us,” he said. “We never can tell how those elections are going to turn out.”
Both Gamoian and Naylor are former VUSD employees. Gamoian worked as a teacher for three decades, and Naylor was both a teacher and worked as assistant principal at El Diamante High School. Niessen, a postal carrier, is a former VUSD trustee who is returning to the board after an absence of several years.
Area 3 covers southeast Visalia; Area 1 includes the western portion of central Visalia; and Area 5 covers much of the center of Visalia south of Highway 198.
The new VUSD Board will hold its next regular meeting at 7pm on Tuesday, November 13, at the District Office, 5000 W. Cypress Avenue.
New High School Coming
Also winning voter approval on November 6 was a proposal to sell $105.3 million in general obligation bonds to fund a variety of projects throughout the VUSD, including the construction of a fifth high school campus.
“We are very excited for what Measure A can bring to our students and we are very grateful to our community for that support,” Gröeber said. “We can’t do these things for students and maintain our facilities without the support of the community.”
Measure A, which required 55% approval, received a yes vote of 57.31% with 13,484 ballots cast in its favor. But, it will be at least five years before students begin instruction at the new campus, with at least two years of planning to be worked through before the first dirt is moved.
Because of state matching funds, the VUSD expects the sale of the bonds to ultimately give them $225 million in spending power. Some $75 million of that is earmarked for construction of the new high school. The rest will be spent on security, upgrades and maintenance at the district’s other 41 campuses. Eighteen of the district’s schools qualify for modernization funding from the state, which is included in the $225 million total.
“We have to go to each on of those 18 schools and assess them,” Gröeber said. “We can’t get the money without a plan.”
But, the first task at the District takes on will be adding security measures.
“We’ll start working in earnest with the Safety Task Force and identify that next level of safety and security,” Gröeber said.
All VUSD schools now have a single point of entry, and new security measures could include added cameras at those points, as well as on parking lots, systems to secure points of entry in emergencies, and electronic key entry systems.
As for the new high school campus, the process of designing it could take as long as two years, with another six months tacked on for state-level approval. The district will place a heavy emphasis on community input.
“What we’re looking for is, we don’t want to just buy a design off the shelf,” Gröeber said. “We want to design what the community wants.”
What the community has said so far, according to Gröeber, is it doesn’t want another campus without amenities, such as a swimming pool, track and theater. Both El Diamante and Golden West high schools were initially constructed without some of those facilities, drawing complaints from staff, students and parents. Those who have witnessed the traffic snarls around Golden West’s campus, which is shared by four other schools, also expressed their concerns the district not repeat that mistake.
The new campus will be built on a 70-acre plot near Ridgeview Middle School, but six roads will eventually service the two campuses, and the new high school will not front onto Akers Road, as Ridgeview does.
While the margin of passage wasn’t vast, it did show voters’ support added education, even at the cost of added property tax.
“I voted yes because I believe that the students, the kids of this generation, need more education,” said Visalia resident and property owner Bart Buhlert, a native son who attended VUSD schools. “The population is increasing, and you can talk about the overcrowding the prison systems, well you’re overcrowding the school systems, as well.”
Buhlert was also in favor of building a campus with all the options, including a swimming pool, “as long as I can go swimming in it,” he said. When complete, the new school’s facilities will be available to the public, Gröeber confirmed.
Joe Alberti, also a resident of Visalia, voted yes on Measure A, as well.
“It says it’s supposed to help the kids, upgrade the classrooms and their equipment,” he said. “That’s important, I think.”
Other Campuses Ignored
Jerry Jensen, who spent his career sifting through demographics reports and worked to pass the bond that funded El Diamante, questioned whether the city needs a fifth high school during the run-up to the election. The VUSD, according to its own studies, has adequate classroom space to house its current population of students, as well as those in the pipeline. After 2020, Jensen says, the number of high school students in the VUSD will begin to shrink, an effect at work throughout the state.
Now that Measure A has approval, Jensen’s concern is the district may ignore needs at the other four high schools.
“My concern is, is all the energy going to go into the new high school or are the parents out there going to demand my school first?” he said. “The folks at Mt. Whitney should be picketing the district office until they get attention.”
The MWHS campus, he said, is in desperate need of upgrades. Its bathrooms are in poor condition, it has “little if any library,” and no theater.
Jensen also says the public needs to be aware of the condition of the campuses already in use. An unbiased report is needed, he said.
“I think they need to have an independent council,” Jensen said.
Jensen is also concerned the citizens of the district no longer have an adequate voice in planning the VUSD’s future. At a recent forum on the subject, he said he was surprised to discover all those in attendance were contractors who expected to benefit from new campus construction.
“There were no independent voices there,” he said.