Visalia parents launch recall effort against Visalia Unified board president

The Visalia Unified School District is split into seven voting areas.

A recall effort against John Crabtree, President of the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) board, has begun. Crabtree represents Area 4 of the district, and his term would naturally be due to end in 2022. Area 4 encompasses a large swath of northwest Visalia, including Goshen.

Crabtree, first elected to the board in 2013, is under fire from a group of citizens who claim that he has been part of multiple decisions detrimonious to the district, its students, and parents. The recall proponents state that he has been dismissive to students and families, too.

In a notice of intention to recall, provided to Crabtree as part of the process, the recall proponents’ four key claims are:

  • Crabtree knowingly adopted a budget with an over $4m deficit in 2019-20 with no published plan to reduce costs to balance the budget in 2020-21,
  • The deliberate deficit makes the impact of the current state budget crisis far worse for VUSD, including massive layoffs of district staff and loss of services to students,
  • Crabtree announced VUSD will not build the fifth Visalia high school with General Obligation bonds approved by Visalia voters, and did not express any intent to rescind the bonds and relieve voters of this tax liability,
  • Upon the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting school closures, Crabtree’s leadership was grossly negligent in sustaining a level of quality education for our students and educational support for parents and families.

The notice was signed by ten individuals: Tim Ramage, Jennifer Ramage, Rashelle Nelson, Scott Nelson, Debby Christenson, James Christenson, Scott Olson, Sandra Olson, Brittany Christenson, and Clayton Christenson.

John Crabtree. Courtesy/VUSD

Crabtree claims the accusations are pure politics. He has a vested interest in the school district, he told the Voice.

“It’s disturbing when somebody’s challenging your integrity, my intentions on the board. I have grandkids that are going to school, so I have a stake in this. I didn’t get into politics for my own good,” Crabtree told the Voice. “I got into being a school board member because I felt it was the right and American thing to do.”

The Valley Voice spoke to Brittany Christenson, one of the initial signatories on the notice of intent.

Christenson said she is simply a mother who wants the best for her kids — and that educational excellence was the organizers’ only motivation for the recall process.

“This petition is completely parent-led and springs from a desire to advocate for the best educational opportunities for our children, as well as establish a board that is willing to truly listen to its students and their families” she said.

He said that anyone with concerns, or who wants to hear more from him, can email him at [email protected]. He is open to talk with anyone who wants to speak in a civilized manner, he said.

Crabtree has responded to the points made in the recall petition in a filing made with the Tulare County Elections Office.

  • Crabtree states that a budget was “passed with deficits, pending allocation of revenues from the usual sources,” and that the district was not in a deficit when accounting for new students, “which aren’t part of the budget pending outcome of that growth.”Administrators had to face several challenges in cutting costs, his response says, which came later; now, the district is no longer in a deficit with a recently passed budget.
  • Crabtree rebuts claims that layoffs will cause a loss of services to students, stating that “to date, no student services have suffered,” and that they were more likely improved.“[The] District has been making many changes to operate more efficiently and balance the budget,” Crabtree writes. “This sometimes includes moving employees to different positions, but rarely resulting in layoffs.”
  • No bonds have been issued yet, Crabtree states, and the decision to halt work on the fifth high school during the design phase was due to building cost increases, a dour outlook on state reimbursements, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • “Our district, like many others, was caught off guard by the pandemic. Being near the end of the year made it extremely difficult for staff to build a program from scratch,” Crabtree wrote. “Considering the nature of this, I would say they did an outstanding job.”

“It’s essentially frustrated parents and the politics of it. Politics is a huge part in this,” Crabtree said. “Remember that we have an election coming up and there are board members who are running this year, and they’re all being challenged.”

The effort isn’t political, Christenson said, and it isn’t personal either.

“I do not know Mr. Crabtree, aside from having watched and called into several school board meetings these past few months. We simply have political processes in place for situations like this, and we are navigating those processes,” she added.

Christenson stressed that the recall effort was not a personal slight against Crabtree. She, and other parents, are frustrated with the way the district is operating, and Crabtree happens to be her representative — a recall was the avenue that she and others chose to pursue after others were exhausted.

“People in our district are not happy with things that have happened and continue to happen, and we want change. We are hoping for a representative who is in this for the kids, who will listen to, stand up for, and represent our kids, who is willing to be their voice,” she added. “We want someone who, when we ask for a forum or a meeting, will make that happen; who, when they say they want parent input, really does and takes it into consideration. This is what our kids and community deserve.”


Recall requirements

Crabtree’s opponents have already filed and published a Notice of Intention, the first step towards beginning the recall process, and Crabtree has already provided his response.

His opponents have prepared a petition, submitted July 1, which can be distributed within Crabtree’s district once approved — the Tulare County Elections Office has until this Friday to make a determination on whether the petition is valid. When the petition is ruled valid, it can be circulated in support of the recall.

There are currently 12,016 registered voters in Crabtree’s district, according to Emily Oliveira with the Tulare County Elections Office.

Based on that number, canvassers would need to get at least 2,403 valid signatures — signatures of registered voters in his district — and would have 120 days to do so.

If enough signatures pass the verification process, an election will be held where voters will make the final decision on whether Crabtree should stay on the board.


Facebook group

Crabtree told the Voice the administrators of a Facebook group called Parents of Visalia Unified Students had rejected requests for a post to be made detailing his rebuttal of the pro-recall points, even though a pro-recall post was already made in the group.

At a special board meeting on Tuesday night, Crabtree said that the post was made by a group administrator and that the post was an “example of the dangers that social media poses when the narrative is controlled by only a few people.”

A post by administrators countered Crabtree’s statements, stating that a member of the 2500+ person group — not an administrator — posted the recall points, and that group administrators had not posted Crabtree’s rebuttals because the recall petition had not yet been approved by the Tulare County Elections Office.

“However, at any point in time, Mr. Crabtree or his acquaintances have been welcome to share his rebuttal themselves. If they would like to do so, we will not stop them. It does not need to come through the admins of this page,” the post read in part.

Christenson is one of multiple administrators in the group, and those interested in the recall can head to the Facebook group to learn more, she said. But she stated recall proponents had been waiting for the recall petition to be approved before making the general public aware of it.

“But, as Mr. Crabtree brought it up during last night’s board meeting, we figured we would begin discussing it now,” Christenson said.

She made clear that while the group will have information about the recall effort, its main focus is on making sure that students and parents have a voice in Visalia Unified’s decision-making processes.

A sitting board member is even part of the group, and has interacted with members by answering questions and participating in discussions; Crabtree is welcome to join the group as well, she said.

“I became involved with all of this because I feel strongly that students and parents are the most important stakeholders in the district and deserve to have a voice in the decision-making process. That was the original intent behind the group, and that continues to be my intent with the recall,” she said. “Many others that I have spoken with, from other parents to students to district teachers and staff, feel the same. Additionally, we have always had an open invitation for any board members or district leadership to join and participate in the group with us. What we discuss has never been secret.”


Alleged indifference

Christenson said that, above and beyond the four points listed in the notice of intent to recall, she believes Crabtree has been indifferent to parent concerns, both during meetings and through ignored requests for a parent-focused forum.

“At one board meeting, as the meeting opened, he decided to condense two separate issues (distance learning and graduation plans) into one and effectively cut in half the time that should have been given for families to issue public comment. Many parents and students had been waiting on hold to call into that meeting for almost an hour, and they were denied the ability to speak to the board.

“So instances like that, where parents, families, and students feel that that they have not been heard or that Mr. Crabtree didn’t want to listen to their concerns is a factor. I would want anyone not familiar with the situation to understand that these issues go back several months, as has the recall effort,” she said.

Crabtree said that in that instance, he didn’t deliberately cut off comment – it was simply that no callers had anything new to add.

“The board did not ignore them. The board, being me at this point, only said to them that we were having public comment regarding opening other schools and people wanted to continue to talk; and, as I will always do, if somebody has something new to offer and to add I will let public comment go further than the original 20 minutes. And no one had anything new to add. So I cut it off,” he said.

At a special meeting on Tuesday night, a caller alleged that Crabtree “didn’t care” about speakers’ comments, too. He vigorously denies those claims, stating that there’s no way anyone could judge him based on a Zoom meeting.

“Think about this – that one girl, or guy I guess it was, that called in. They call in under false pretenses because their calls are screened, and then they say to me, Mr. Crabtree, I don’t think you care at all,” he said. “Well how did you surmise that from sitting there and watching me on a Zoom screen while I’m running a meeting as I had said later on?”


COVID response

Many parents are still in the dark about Visalia Unified’s plans for the upcoming school year in a COVID-19 world. Parents are being asked to fill out surveys on what they’d like to see, and the last press release from the district states that the district is looking at all scenarios, including a fully traditional school setting, full distance learning, a hybrid of the two, or other methods.

Parents have been asking for a forum to discuss these options since April, Christenson said, but none has happened. That, coupled with what Christenson states was a “woefully inadequate” response to COVID during the past semester, has contributed to frustration among parents.

“Here we are in July, school is a month away, and many remain in the dark and feel that their input has not been effectively sought or taken into account,” she said. “So, many families are feeling that the avenues for reaching out to and communicating with the board and district have been exhausted and have not felt heard.”

Crabtree discussed various scenarios for the upcoming school year with the Voice. While he’d like to see the district return to full, traditional instruction, not only for a familiar setting but also for the beneficial socialization and interaction aspects, there are bounds of questions hanging over any final solution.

“There’s so many variables that could come about in trying to get schools back open and make them the best that they can be so that kids do get that education. And we’re really kind of fumbling around like everybody else, trying to figure out what is going to be the next model for that, and still be safe,” Crabtree said.

“We are still considering all options and as you can see, every day it changes. Every day,” Crabtree added.


Budget, layoffs, and bonds

Christenson says that recent district layoffs were avoidable and that board members, Crabtree included, had chances to avoid them.

“During the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years, President Crabtree and the board directed finance personnel to approve salary increases for teachers and staff with no publicized plan to make the general fund expense cuts necessary to afford these ongoing increased costs,” she said. “These actions were approved unanimously by the board over the cautions and concerns expressed to the board by fiscal staff that the district was in an annual “deficit spending” spiral, and the reserve fund would not be able to sustain ongoing payment for overruns in annual expenses over annual revenues.”

“Now, facing a pandemic and the budget issues that that inevitably has and will bring, we are facing an even more difficult situation than we would be otherwise because of the actions taken by President Crabtree and the VUSD board,” she added.

Approximately 60 people are unemployed as a result of the board’s actions, Christenson said, creating an impact on “student services which have and will be lost.”

Christenson also stated that voters felt they were “sold a bill of goods” after voting for Measure A bonds only to find that plans for Visalia’s fifth high school were shelved; the new high school was the main selling point for the measure, she said.

Crabtree says he understands the pain that layoffs can cause, but that the board was faced with few other choices, since the majority of its costs are related to employees.

“I was in business in the grocery industry and for the last 43 years with a major wholesale company. I understand budgets and I understand business and I went through several layoffs, and they’re always painful,” Crabtree said.

“Probably close to 90% of the budget of a school district is employees, so where do you make those cuts, when budgets go bad, or when money dries up?” Crabtree asked. “Most people don’t know that, it’s all people. And so the rest of that is for taking care of school grounds, custodians of the various sites, maintenance, transportation, feeding people.”

Many programs are implemented through grants that aren’t always guaranteed, he added; when those programs lose funding, those programs’ employees may have to be assigned elsewhere or laid off entirely.

“We’re a people business, and I understand that, and we have a lot of great people that work for VUSD. But there comes a time when economies change, and it isn’t the first time VUSD has gone through it, and we will go through it again long after I’m gone,” he said. “People don’t want you to call education a business, but in my opinion when you work with money it’s a business because you’ve only got so much to spend.”

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