Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part series on the VUSD board election. This article focuses on the incumbent board members. The next part of the series will focus on the candidates seeking to replace the incumbents.
Halloween candy and decorations – even some early Xmas items – have arrived on the shelves in big box stores, which can only mean the November election season is in swing.
Surprisingly, the Visalia Unified School District Board of Trustees election has become one of the more contested in Tulare County: five incumbent trustees are up for re-election, and four have at least one challenger. The election is set for Tuesday, November 8.
The fifth incumbent – Joy Naylor in Area 3 – will be reappointed to another four-year term as no challenger entered the race. All four remaining races are for four-year terms ending in 2026.
2020-22: Rough Patch for Visalia Schools
Since the last round of elections in 2020 – which saw the defeat of two sitting board members and the retirement of a third – the district has seen a slew of troubles.
Those troubles actually began before the 2020 election, when departing Area 7 Trustee William Fulmer jokingly cast aspersions about women voters causing his perceived decline of culture in the US. He made the quip during an open meeting.
At the same meeting, Fulmer said a textbook used in an ethnic studies class was “straight Marxism,” and the one replacing it was “pretty much diluted Marxism.” He did not elaborate on the comment, which came around the same time false concerns over the teaching of Critical Race Theory in American schools became a hot-button issue.
Fulmer was replaced in a five-way race won by Jacquie Gaebe, a current VUSD employee who works at the Visalia Adult School as an assistant principal.
Homophobic Comments Lead to Resignation
In the two other 2020 transfers of power on VUSD, one went smoothly, with winner Megan Casebeer-Soleno ousting Niessen Foster in Area 6. The other race saw a narrow margin – just eight votes decided the outcome – in what would eventually turn out as a victory for former VUSD teacher Christopher Pope over incumbent Lucia Vasquez.
Pope resigned in November 2021 under fire less than a year after taking office. He was accused of making anti-gay comments to a teacher at Golden West High School who had requested the board consider issuing a proclamation in honor of LGBTQ Pride Month.
Notably, VUSD was sued in 2000 after the ACLU alleged it fostered an atmosphere of anti-gay harassment at Golden West. The federal suit, which VUSD settled in 2002 by agreeing to anti-harassment training for students and staff, claimed VUSD students identified as gay or lesbian were routinely harrassed by students and staff.
COVID-19 Divided VUSD
Also leaving the board in the middle of his term was Area 6 trustee John Crabtree. Crabtree faced a recall effort after the board unanimously passed a deficit budget in 2021, and faced ire from parents for the district’s COVID-19 response.
While those who organized the recall failed to collect the required amount of signatures, Crabtree moved away from the area. The arguments for recall blamed Crabtree for decisions made by the entire VUSD governing board.
This was the climate at VUSD when the entire globe was struck by the novel coronavirus pandemic. While all the world struggled to avoid the worst of the disease’s ravages, schools in particular were hard hit. VUSD struggled with total campus closure, distance learning, the first return to campus – along with subsequent closures and reopenings – and the feeding of tens of thousands of students while classrooms were shuttered.
“It was a difficult, difficult time for us,” said Juan Guerrero, board president and trustee for Area 2. Guerrero is facing challenger Paul Belt.
In the midst of the crisis in spring 2021, then Superintendent Tamara Ravalín announced she would retire at the end of August. It was Ravalín who was at the administrative helm during the COVID-19 response.
“I did not like the emergency orders that came during the pandemic,” Guerrero said. “The superintendent was running the district with very little input from the board. I’ll just leave it at that.”
The fallout was the hiring of an interim superintendent following Ravalín’s departure and a $20,000 nationwide search for her replacement. The district eventually chose Kirk Shrum to take Ravalín’s place.
Stay the Course or Change Horses?
The four incumbent trustees facing opponents in the upcoming election all seem proud of their part in the selection of the district’s new top administrator, and his hiring seems to mark a milestone in their minds: a reemergence to normalcy for the VUSD, its students, teachers and parents.
But come November, voters will decide whether to continue as-is or opt for yet another set of fresh faces. Why the incumbent officers feel they should be allowed to go on holding their seats in general and especially in the wake of COVID-19 has become the election’s central question.
Future reporting will look at why the challengers feel they represent a better choice.
For Guerrero, the choice is an obvious one given his perspective that the district has improved greatly in the last two years since the previous shake-up of the board. Following the 2020 election and the departures of Pope and Crabtree, Guerrero found himself leading a board with only two other experienced trustees. The rest were rookies, and Guerrero literally set about educating his colleagues through classes that inform trustees of their duties and responsibilities.
Under his leadership, all of the current trustees have completed a master’s in governance course offered by the state education office, essentially classes on how to be a good school board, he said. It’s a fact he’s proud of, and the new attitude that’s resulted typifies a culture at the VUSD he wants to foster through his continued leadership.
He said it’s why he’s running for a fifth – and he says final – term.
“A lot of it has to do over the last two years, when I became board president, about how we operated as a board and interacted with each other,” he said. “I wanted to get back to building a governance team. I think the board got away from that. I want to look at the things that really made us work as a board.”
Those things that work, he said, are a district-wide focus on academics and professional development of the members of the VUSD Board of Trustees. Now that a united effort to achieve those goals is underway, Guerrero said voters should reelect the trustees who worked together to make it happen.
“The main reason I want to run is I want our school board to be stable,” he said. “I want to return it to the status it (the VUSD) had before. I know what makes it work.”
Maintaining the New Order
Area 1 trustee and Board Clerk Walta Gamoian also has a clear idea of what will work to improve education in the VUSD. She certainly has the experience. Gamoian is a retired VUSD teacher.
“I dreamed about being on the board about two years before I retired from teaching. I knew some things had to change,” she said. “Our kids weren’t on grade level for math; they weren’t on grade level for reading.”
In working to improve that, Gamoian chose to focus on making classrooms more amenable to learning by removing distractions in the form of misbehaving students. The transfer would be temporary, a chance for students with behavior issues to learn better ways to conduct themselves before being returned to the regular classroom environment.
“Discipline wasn’t good,” Gamoian said. “Children were disrupting the classroom. It was because of a California law that says you can’t suspend kids who are disrupting the classroom. The kids disrupting the classroom were missing out; other kids in the classroom were missing out.”
With that in mind, Gamoian began working on the scheme to retrain those problem students for everyone’s benefit. Then COVID hit and work on the project stopped along with everything else. Now, that work can resume.
That, she says, is why she should be re-elected to another four-year term.
“I knew from my teaching if we could make kids feel they belonged, they’d do better. We’re putting systems in place to help kids who are struggling learn how to be in a classroom,” Gamorian said. “We’ve got to raise the standards. We began the work I dreamed about. I want to continue it.”
Test Driving the School Board
Area 6 trustee Dr. Randy Villegas – who will face a two-way race against Jonelle Murphy – is the newest member of the VUSD, having served just 10 months since he replaced Pope.
“I’m very proud of the work I’ve been able to accomplish with the rest of the board in a short time,” Villegas said.
Villegas is a professor of political science at the College of the Sequoias. Specifically, he cited his participation in the selection of the VUSD’s new superintendent and the improvement of the district’s mathematical standards with the addition of a mandatory third year of study. The change brings the VUSD in line with entrance requirements for both the University of California and California State University systems.
“I think we need to go even further and make all our graduation requirements in line with A-G, the requirements a student needs to meet to attend a CSU or a UC,” he said.
Villegas described his first year on the VUSD’s Board of Trustees as a sort of try-out period to see if he and the organization fit each other. He seems to think they do, and he’s found a sort of niche for himself. He’d like to see the district introduce a program that would allow students who attend college level classes while in high school to earn an associate’s degree when they graduate, allowing them to enter college as juniors. It would present a significant saving of both time and money.
“We do offer some dual-enrollment courses, but we don’t have anything like that,” Villegas said.
The Accidental Trustee
Being on the leadership board of the VUSD wasn’t a goal for Catalina Blair when Crabtree announced his unexpected decision to step down.
“I was not ever expecting to run for board in any way and was compelled by a few people in my community to try after John Crabtree moved away,” she said of her appointment to the abbreviated term. “It felt like a try-it-out period. I’m going to throw my name out and see if I can be a help. I’ve learned a ton. I never thought I’d like a thing like this, but I love it.”
Since she took office one year ago, Blair has made it a focus to expand the reach of the VUSD’s voice and to make the district a better listener. She points to her effort to gather input from all of the district’s high schools during the hiring of the new superintendent.
“Hearing the feedback from the kids, getting emails saying thank you for letting me be a part. They have so much to say,” Blair said. “What they’re going through, it’s so much different than what I went through, what our trustees went through.”
She also wants VUSD to have a better digital presence, making use of the various media platforms available, and improving the district’s website to make it more accessible and useful. The VUSD’s current web presence is difficult to navigate, Blair said, making it hard to find the information parents are seeking when they visit.
“They go away feeling we’re not transparent,” she said. “That’s not what we want.”
She’d also like to see increased positive participation from parents with children studying in the VUSD’s classrooms and via its online presence.
“There isn’t a lot of parent engagement at the board meetings,” Blair said. “When there is, it’s usually negative.”