This is part II about the VUSD election profiling the challengers. Part I focused on the incumbents.
Each of the six candidates seeking to unseat four incumbents on the Visalia Unified School District’s (VUSD) Board of Trustees in the upcoming election seems to think, in one way or another, that they can do a better job of running the district than the incumbents. On Tuesday, November 8, voters will decide if those candidates deserve the chance to prove it.
Those elected or re-elected will serve four-year terms ending in January 2026.
Some of those would-bes have great experience in education, while others possess motivation or vision that suggests – at least to them – they’re more well suited to the job than some who are doing it now. Just one of them is a newcomer, but even she is dissatisfied with VUSD’s elected leadership.
All of the candidates want to change the way Visalia’s schools are run; unsurprisingly, they differ on what alterations are needed.
The Area 1 Race: COVID Confusion
Area 1 of the VUSD is a swath that cuts diagonally through the city just east of its center, and it contains a dense population of mainly upper middle-class families. The main campus is El Diamante High, and it’s also home to the schools that feed into it. The current Area 1 trustee is retired teacher Walta Gamoian.
Challenger Jesse Perez boasts a military and educational background and has experience running a Bible-centered school in the Carolinas.
His concern about the way the VUSD is run began during the chaotic period when students were returned to classrooms after COVID. Perez felt parents and community members were left in the dark about how that process would unfold. That lack of information created unneeded anxiety.
“Just them (students) being in school, there’s a lot of things happening, questions arising,” he said. “It seemed like parents were reaching out and not getting any response.”
This is not the only time concerns from the community have gone either unanswered or were given an inadequate or mixed response, Perez said.
The Area 2 Race: Different Experience Sets
Covering a wide and mainly rural northeastern portion of the VUSD, Area 2 is the seat of current board president, Juan Gurrerro, who has served four, four-year terms and is seeking a fifth. He will not run again following this election, but a successful campaign would mean two full decades on the school board before he departs.
Seeking to prevent that fifth and final term is Paul Belt, an adjunct professor at the College of the Sequoias.
Belt is married to an instructor who has worked for the VUSD for 17 years. Belt moved to the city 38 years ago, and has aided with afterschool programs, served on committees and been a guest speaker on marriage and divorce. Most of his volunteerism takes place at Golden West High and LaJoya. GWHS is the largest campus in Area 2.
The VUSD, Belt said, is not “going in a healthy place” and he would like to add “some influence of common sense” to the school board. The pandemic was his see-the-light moment. A lack of correct thinking was on display as the district reacted to the disease, he said.
“COVID really brought that to the forefront for me,” Belt said.
He said there has been deep mismanagement bordering on negligence.
“Then I started looking deeper, the millions of dollars they’re throwing in all directions,” Belt said, describing a time the school board was told the district had “accidentally” saved $500,000 when it left four administrative positions unfilled.
“We’re not hitting on all cylinders,” Belt said.
Recently, Belt said he was the target of a verbal attack by a representative of the Visalia Unified Teachers Association, the union that represents VUSD educators, during a meeting held at a VUSD campus. He called for the school board to address the behavior, saying his wife now faces a hostile work environment because of the alleged incident.
The Area 4 Race: Three Opponents Seek Election
The most crowded race in the field is Area 4, currently served by Catalina Blair, who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by the sudden departure of Board President, John Crabtree. Area 4 makes up the northwest portion of the district, including Goshen, and is the largest district of the seven.
Blair, who’s appointment ends when the results of the November 8 election are certified, took office in November of last year.
The race includes the most and least experienced candidates. Challengers for the seat include former VUSD superintendent Todd Oto, parent and advocate Crystal Reynolds, and mystery candidate Jesus Morales-Grace, who did not respond to the Valley Voice’s requests for an interview.
In his filings with the Tulare County Elections Office, Morales-Grace described himself as a small business owner, and his contact telephone number lists a Los Angeles area code. No other public information is readily available.
For Reynolds, who has no previous school board experience, inadequate communication is why she wants to see changes at the VUSD.
“I’ve just noticed a lack of the school board, their lack of reaching out to the parents and including their input,” she said. “I think that’s super important to make the district succeed.”
Reynolds said she has seen too little change in that regard since Blair was appointed. She was also disappointed with what she said is a reversal by the school board on the need for a committee to oversee campus safety. The board, she said, was receptive to the idea when she presented it, but then walked back the notion at its next meeting, declaring such a body unnecessary.
That, she said, felt like another exclusion marking a lack of responsiveness to parents’ needs and issues.
“I’d like to see parents brought back to the table,” Reynold said. “I think committees would be something to implement change for our district.”
Oto, the one-time VUSD superintendent, said the current school board just doesn’t have the chops to do the job right.
“The board doesn’t have the depth of experience that just about all the boards I’ve worked with over the years have had,” he said, adding that electing him as trustee would change that.
“I’ve got a sense of how things work,” Oto said. “I know the decisions they make and the information they use.”
Now retired, Oto also said there is a personal aspect to his candidacy, as becoming a member of the school board he once served would crown a career in education spent entirely as a VUSD employee.
“It’s one of the personal justifications, it would be cool to have done every job from teacher to board member,” he said. “I think that would be a great capping of a career in education.”
He’s also tired of being retired.
“Maybe I’m not done,” Oto said. “Maybe there’s something I can give that is useful to the organization.”
The Area 6 Race: ‘What are they hiding?’
It’s a sense of suspicion that drove Jonelle Murphy to challenge appointed board member Dr. Randy Villegas.
A recent transplant to Visalia who arrived here during the VUSD’s response to COVID, Murphy felt ignored by the district’s leaders.
“Being shut out, not having any say, the current school board is not transparent,” she said. “They talk like they are, but anybody who’s tried to reach the school would know they’re not transparent and for parent engagement.”
And, Murphy is suspicious of the school board’s motives.
“I want to know what goes on behind closed doors,” she said. “What are they hiding?”
The feeling she’s not being told all there is to know is what drives her inquietude.
“I just know that when I ask questions, a lot of times I don’t get responses back,” she said. “I have no idea (what the school board may be hiding). There is zero communication.”
Murphy is now a stay-at-home parent. She worked formerly as a heavy equipment operator and managed a restaurant, she said.
Like Belt, Villegas is also an adjunct professor at COS. As an appointee, his current term will end when the election is certified. The other incumbents who were not appointed will finish their current terms at the end of 2022.