Questions over the selection process for the Visalia Unified School District’s (VUSD) next superintendent seem to have brewed a minor civil war among members of the city’s education community.
After dismissing former Superintendent Dr. Todd Oto in May, the VUSD’s Board of Trustees is now poised to select his replacement. However, a group of 30 notable educators and community leaders has issued an open letter calling for wide community input in the hiring process, and in doing so seem to have rubbed some VUSD stakeholders the wrong way.
The letter–signed by several former VUSD trustees, superintendents and teachers, as well as other community leaders–calls for maximizing wide public input before the selection to ensure transparency in the hiring process.
“The intent from my perspective is that I really want the board to be more open about the decisions they make, especially like this,” said former VUSD superintendent Craig Wheaton, who is among those who signed the open letter.
Ravalin Could Be Next Superintendent
Currently, Dr. Tamara Ravalin is serving as interim superintendent, and the trustees appear ready to offer her the position permanently. While both Wheaton and Oto became became the VUSD’s top administrator after serving as short terms as an interim, conditions have since changed, Wheaton said.
“The Board president just wants to automatically appoint the interim, which happened to me,” he said. “What’s different now is that there are a lot of differing opinions. When they picked me, the district was going great and they were happy with me.”
Wheaton points to the trustees’ decision to fire Oto as a reason to seek the opinion of a wide swath of the community before making any hiring decision. The letter calls from input from VUSD employees, parents of the district’s students and community members in general, as well as representatives from parents and teachers groups.
“If you don’t like the direction of the district, if you fire the superintendent, then it’s time to ask around,” Wheaton said. “It’s not as simple as a ‘don’t tell us what to do’ kind of thing. I had no other motive other than I believe the board is making decisions behind closed doors.”
$8 Million Budget Shortfall
In October, the VUSD Board of Trustees approved a budget that outspends the district’s income by some $8 million, and the move came without any announcement or plan to cover the gap.
Wheaton says the quiet approval of a deficit budget without public knowledge is a perfect example of why more transparency is needed at the VUSD.
“There were no comments at all about that. Nobody knew about it,” he said. “That decision is the main reason some of these decisions need to be made in public. Let’s talk about what direction we need.”
Former VUSD superintendent Stan Carrizosa–another signer of the open letter calling for transparency–says it’s important to have a plan to erase the deficit, though he recognizes deficit spending is sometimes needed.
“Sometimes you have to take action to adopt a structural deficit in your budget. Sometimes you have to draw from your reserve to balance the budget, and that’s OK,” he said. “I would be concerned if that was a regular practice. I don’t think it’s their intent to regularly adopt deficit budgets.”
It is, however, the trustees’ duty to keep the district solvent, he added.
“Protecting those assets is in the interest of the students,” Carrizosa said.
Opinion from First-Hand Knowledge
While Wheaton describes the signatories as “quality people who are very concerned,” Carrizosa emphasized that the letter represents opinions of people with who have experience dealing with and working for the VUSD.
“Personally, I don’t know why it’s as big a debate as it is,” Carrizosa said.
He points to similar surveys used by the Visalia City Council, Kaweah Delta Health Care District Board of Directors and the College of the Sequoias Board of Trustees when hiring equivalent positions.
“I think that’s what makes the institution strong. It seems like pretty common practice, I’d say best practice. When you’re working with the public, you’re looking for public interaction,” he said. “If we were talking about a school principal, we wouldn’t be having a big debate over whether we should have an interview. Are we going to abandon the practice to interview teachers? Of course not.”
Carrizosa says sampling public opinion will strengthen support for the VUSD by making the hiring process and the criteria used to select the new superintendent more clear. He said the call for public input has nothing to do with the VUSD Board of Trustees itself.
“This has to do with structural integrity, not with the people,” he said.
Subverting the Process
While it may seem polling many of those living in the VUSD about their preferences for the district’s next superintendent makes sense, there are others in the education community who object.
Roy Ludwig, a teacher at Sequoia High School, says the open letter has “ruffled the feathers of so many in the community.” He believes the letter is intended to lead the VUSD trustees away from established hiring protocol.
“I’m kind of incensed that they would go to this extent to do what they have done. Most of them have been in education for a lot of their lives,” he said. “They understand the process of selecting a superintendent. They’re laying out a game plan that completely circumvents the system that most school boards live by.”
He also seems to see the open letter as an attack on the trustees.
“Do not be bullied by a small group of people that want to change the system,” Ludwig told them.
The Established Protocol
Kerry Peterson, a self-described advocate for children and former PTA official, pointed to the lack of community input when hiring Wheaton and Oto, the two immediate past superintendents, and called for the district to use that process again.
“I respect Stan (Carrizosa), what he’s saying, but I don’t agree with it,” Peterson said. “I believe that I like the process of having parents and other community members when you’re hiring principals and superintendents, but we haven’t followed that protocol.”
Gathering community input, she said, makes little difference to the end result.
“We didn’t do it (survey the community) when Stan (Carrizosa) left. He got to choose. Craig (Wheaton) got to choose,” Peterson said. “We didn’t do it then, so why are we starting now? It doesn’t make a difference when we’re a part of (the hiring process).”
Peterson is also wary of making too broad a search for the VUSD’s next top administrator, citing the possible cost.
“I don’t want to spend $100,000 on a hiring process. We need the money,” she said. “Right now, as it is, Divisadero’s choir can’t even go to Disneyland like the other schools, because we can’t raise the money, like the other schools do.”
Another Nationwide Disaster
Dorice Vieira–who serves as vice chair of the Measure A Bond Oversight Committee and also describes herself as a child advocate–expressed her concern a nationwide search for Oto’s replacement could end with another poor fit.
“The bigger reason for not doing a nationwide search, particularly, was because of the disaster that ensued upon the nationwide searches that resulted in the hiring of former superintendents Sharron Tucker and Linda Gonzales,” she said. “What a disappointment both of them turned out to be and so destructive to our local community and district.”
Picking another administrator who doesn’t fit in with the VUSD community, Vieira worries, could lead to the loss of experienced personnel.
“Doing a broad-based or nationwide search has great potential of destabilizing our district and losing key people who have stuck it out under previous administrations,” she said. “Many, many talented individuals have left our district already, some in administration, and many, many teachers we’ve watched go to other districts.”
Ultimately, Vieira says, only the elected trustees have the complete picture regarding the departure of Oto and the performance of Ravalin as his interim replacement.
“They (VUSD trustees) have been forced to make some tough decisions,” she said. “They are the only ones that know all of the facts pertaining to our district in the last year.”