Forum stacks up VUSD candidates

Voters were treated to a side-by-side comparison of the candidates seeking the three available seats on the Visalia Unified School District’s (VUSD) Board of Trustees during a candidates forum held in the run-up to the November 3 election.

The forum, held virtually on September 23, was sponsored by the Visalia League of Women Voters and co-sponsored and facilitated by the Visalia Times-Delta. Other sponsors included the Central Valley Partnership, the League of United Latin-American Citizens, Mi Familia Vota, Tulare County Farm Bureau and the Visalia Chamber of Commerce.


A VUSD Who’s-Who

All but one of the candidates seeking office were present for the forum, and those on hand spent the evening describing the reasons they are for running and the changes they believe need to happen to give Visalia students a better educational experience. While the order in which the candidates spoke was not reflective of the races in which they are running, this article will sort them by the seat they are seeking in some cases, and by issue in others.

Up for grabs are seats in areas 5, 6 and 7. Area 5 includes south-central Visalia, and the contest there is between incumbent Niessen Foster and challenger Megan Casebeer-Solano. In Area 6–north-central Visalia–incumbent Dr. Lucia Vázquez faces challenger Christopher Pope. In Area 7–the southwestern portion of the VUSD–the incumbent opted not to seek another term; seeking to replace him are five unbloodied newcomers. They are Jacquie Gaebe, Colijia Feliz, Randy Evans, Nora Allstedt and James Reynolds. Reynolds was the sole candidate who did not attend the forum.


Area 5: a Postman and a Lawyer

The Area 5 seat is currently held by Foster, a postal delivery person who has lived and worked in Visalia since 1985, and will soon retire. He has four grandchildren who attend VUSD schools. Casebeer-Solano, his challenger, is a senior deputy district attorney for Tulare County. She and her husband, a teacher, have two children who have not yet reached school age.

Foster returned to the school board in 2018. Previously, he served beginning in 2000, then resigned following a controversy involving the misuse of information about VUSD personnel. During the forum, Foster repeatedly found himself advising voters to stay the course while describing the actions the current board has taken as effective. During the forum, the Area 5 incumbent held up the VUSD’s work on protecting students’ civil rights as an accomplishment, described what he believes is an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic, and defended the decision not to construct a fifth high school while preserving the board’s ability to do so in the future.

“In March, the decision was taken out of our hands because of the failure of Proposition 13,” Foster said. “Now this board is going to modernize schools with $35 million, which will provide jobs for the local economy.”

Casebeer-Solano–who is endorsed by the Visalia Unified Teachers Association (VUTA) and the California School Employees Association (CSEA)–is making her second run for the seat, losing to Foster in 2017. Casebeer-Solano says her position as senior attorney within the public defender’s office is her major qualification for taking a school board seat, and she was moved to seek office by a desire to help the community. Her remarks focused on increasing dialogue with community members and transparency at the VUSD, as demonstrated by her remarks on the district’s handling of tensions surrounding civil rights.

“It means that we have a pervasive problem, and it’s something that we need to deal with from a top-down level,” she said of the district’s ongoing attempts to ensure student equity. “This is not something where we can just expel or suspend one student. This is something that is going to take our entire community and our administration and our teachers to fix.”


Area 6: Two Educators Seek Seat

Vázquez, who recently earned a doctorate in education, is endorsed by both the CSEA and the VUTA. She described a life-long association with the VUSD in various capacities, including as the Area 6 representative for the last nine years. Pope recently retired after two decades as teacher in VUSD’s elementary schools. His career, he says, has prepared him uniquely to take over the Area 6 seat.

“People keep asking, ‘Why are you running?’ and my response is simple: experience,” Pope said. “Twenty-two years of teaching has developed my ability to listen to parents, to understand staff perspective and has fostered my love for children.”

Pope was critical of what he says is an exodus of teachers from the VUSD, and he also expressed concern about the emergency powers trustees granted Superintendent Dr. Tamara Ravalin in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I feel like there’s a lot of administration decisions that are being made without the board’s insight and an inclusion,” he said.

A former representative of his fellow teachers with the VUTA who also has the group’s endorsement, Pope repeatedly said their concerns were underrepresented on the board.

In contrast, Vázquez says she is very much in touch with the needs and feelings of students, parents and community members. She is aware how decisions the board makes can affect them, she says, and has the experience of having made hard choices.

“I had a parent actually come up to me that I knew, and in tears, telling me I had ruined her life,” Vázquez said. “And this is serious. This is where kids are going to go to school and where their stuff is, so these are the really difficult decisions. If we shift things around, it’s not easy. There’s a lot of things to take into consideration.”


Area 7: Five Candidates, No Incumbent

The broadest spread of candidates for any of the seats is in the Area 7 race, where five newcomers are seeking to replace Trustee Bill Fulmer, who has opted not to run again. The slate includes three female educators and two area businessmen.

Of the two men, only Evans made an appearance at the forum, where he presented himself as an alternative to placing another former or current educator on the VUSD board. He described his nearly four decades in the international insurance business, and says his participation in various service groups and clubs is an indicator of his commitment to helping and leading in his community.

He described his approach to education in a businesslike way.

“A well-educated student body reflects the investment in our communities in the form of good paying jobs,” he said. “When student achievement drops off, those well paying jobs don’t materialize, and businesses leave the community.”

Gaebe is the only of the three candidates with an educational background who has worked within the VUSD, beginning as a teacher, eventually working into site and district administration, as a vice principal and area superintendent. She is also the mother of three students in the VUSD.

“This really just all adds up to that I know our district from the inside out,” she said. “I know the questions to ask. I know the follow-up questions to ask to those. I know how to not be placated with surface answers and information, and I know how to expect results and set up systems that empower our people to achieve those results within that experience.”

Feliz currently works for the Tulare County Office of Education as a clinical social worker and trainer, and is an adjunct instructor at Fresno Pacific University and the College of the Sequoias. She would like to see the VUSD as a center for promoting good mental health.

“I truly believe in inclusion, equity and diversity, and I believe in mental health, in addressing the needs of the mental health of our students, of our staff and teachers or parents, through services on campus,” she said.

Allstedt, a former music teacher who now works as an instructional technology expert and district librarian for the Exeter Union School District, said she would bring a deep understanding of the educational budgetary process to the position, as well as having experience as a lobbyist.

“Let me tell you, I have a grasp of Local Control Funding Formula (the state law dictating how districts are funded) here in California. I have served on district budget committees. I understand the supplemental income grants and the LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan) process that goes with that,” she said. “I also have a vast understanding of ed code including, the fact that at times I’ve had administrators coming to me asking for help with understanding and finding a code.”


Duties and Cutting Costs

On the topic of trustee duties, the sentiments on all sides were similar, with variations on which groups–teachers, students, the public, parents–were not getting the attention they deserve from the board as it stands. The core duties of a VUSD trustee, however, were summed up rather succinctly by Area 5 Trustee Foster.

“The main duties of a trustee are to select the superintendent, to provide the infrastructure and maintain a budget,” he said. “And I have done all three of those as a board member.”

While Casebeer-Solano discussed the board exemplifying the “morals you want to see reflected,” Gaebe called setting longer-term goals one of a trustee’s more important duties.

“I think the board, one of their main duties that is lacking is adopting a long-range vision with bold benchmarks and metrics, so that we can let the public understand what we’re trying to achieve,” she said. “We need to define what a great Visalia Unified will look like.”

In light of state budget cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic, the VUSD will likely face budget shortfalls in upcoming funding cycles. In addressing how to make spending cuts, the consensus was unsurprisingly on providing quality education. Opinions on how to achieve that while trimming fat varied, with Gaebe focusing on her own experience.

“I have sat in cabinet meetings where we needed to make cuts, and we did not have a metric or data to look at which programs were most effective,” she said. “It was often a lot of anecdotes rather than the real data of what is actually increasing student achievement, what is best for our students.”


What About a Windfall?

Should Prop 15 pass in November, the district could find itself with a much larger budget, more than $18 million annually by some estimates. How to spend that money could be an issue for the trustees of the VUSD, and opinions, of course, varied.

Calls ranged from using the possible new funding for supplementing the district’s current programs, rather than expanding them, to paying better wages to district employees, especially teachers.

Feliz took a different tack, describing an effort to put the VUSD on stronger financial footing. The current budget includes an $8 million deficit, a gap that Feliz says should be closed.

“I think that the funds should be used on bringing back the deficit that currently exists, pay down some of our debts, so that we don’t continue raising our debt and we have to sacrifice staff or support staff or teachers in the process,” she said.

The hours-long forum also included questions on the district’s record on equity and fairness in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, as well as student discipline, construction of facilities, low test scores, pandemic response and involving more of those who feel the effects of VUSD decisions in the process of making those decisions.

Full video of the forum is available online at the Visalia Times-Delta and Visalia Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook pages.

The election will be held Tuesday, November 3.

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