Recall proponents say John Crabtree presided over a board that failed to build a fifth high school, adopt a balanced budget and sustain quality learning during the pandemic
VISALIA – A group of parents want to recall the president of the Visalia Unified school board for his leadership, which they deemed “negligent” during the last two years.
The group of 10 parents filed a “Notice of Intention to Circulate a Recall Petition” with the Tulare County Registrar of Voters on June 23 as a first step in an effort to recall Visalia Unified School Board President John Crabtree. During his two years as board president, the recall proponents say his leadership led to the following board decisions: 1. Adopted a budget with over $4 million deficit in 2019-20; 2. [which] made the impact of the current state budget crisis far worse for VUSD; 3. announced VUSD will not build the fifth Visalia high school with the General Obligation bonds approved by Visalia voters; and 4. Closed down schools without sustaining a level of quality education for students and educational support for parents and families.
“The accusations are really a joke,” said Crabtree, who has served on the school board since 2012. “The things that she is accusing me of are things that were voted on by the whole board.”
The notice was published in the Visalia Times-Delta on July 1. A copy of the notice was then personally delivered to Crabtree by one of the proponents. Crabtree then had seven days to file his response with the elections office and to personally deliver the responses to one of the proponents, both of which he did on June 26.
Crabtree’s official answers to the recall notice questions, which are limited to a total of 200 words for all questions, are shown in italics below each question and are deliberately not complete sentences for brevity:
1. Knowingly adopted a budget with over $4 million deficit in 2019-20 with no published plan to reduce costs to balance the budget in 2020-21.
Response: “Budget was passed with deficits, pending allocation of revenues from the usual sources. District was not in a deficit when accounting for new students, which aren’t part of the budget pending outcome of that growth. New administration had several challenges to cutting cost which came later. District is no longer in deficit with recently passed budget.”
In an interview on Monday, Crabtree explained that school district budgets are required to be passed each June before the start of a new fiscal year on July 1. Before the end of the first semester of the 2019-20 year, district CFO Nathan Hernandez said most of the $6 million deficit for the year was due to an $8 million increase in salary negotiated after the passage of the budget and over $9 million in one-time costs that carried over the previous fiscal year due to delays in furnishing classrooms. The budget also did not take into account average daily attendance funding for 332 additional students that the district could not include in the budget until April. In March, the 2019-20 budget was balanced by reducing Local Control Accountability funding by $4.6 million, the General Fund by $4.1 million and $1.7 million in pension deferrals. In June, VUSD took additional steps to adjust to the Governor’s proposal to cut $23 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
2. This deliberate budget 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.
Response: “District has been making many changes to operate more efficiently and balance the budget. This sometimes includes moving employees to different positions, but rarely resulting in layoffs. To date no students services have suffered. More likely improved.”
Crabtree said budgets are often a victim of the previous year. The state’s record economic expansion over the last decade meant there was additional funding flowing into the district for programs designed to close the achievement gap. New programs require additional employees adding cost to the district, but once there is an economic downturn, “you have to figure out how to keep them going or get rid of them, and that also includes the employees that program was built on.” In most cases, Crabtree said the district attempts to find those employees other jobs in the district but that isn’t always possible.
Crabtree said at no point has the district cut any funding to student services, a claim he called “pure speculation.”
3. Mr. Crabtree announced that VUSD will not build the fifth Visalia high school with the General Obligation bonds approved by Visalia voters and did not express any intent to rescind the bonds and relieve voters of this tax liability.
Response: “Unanimous decision by board stopped high school in the design phase because of the cost increases to build, reimbursements from the state were looking less likely and the COVID-19 crises. No bonds or cost related to them have been issued. Possible for high school in future.”
The school board voted in April not to move forward with plans to build a fifth high school because the state would not have the other half of the funds after a statewide school construction bond, the unfortunately named Proposition 13, failed in March and the cost of construction in the state continued to skyrocket.
“The board still wants to build the high school, there are just too many obstacles in the way right now,” Crabtree said.
He went on to say the board did not rescind the bonds because a new high school was just one of many needed projects. School bonds, like the $105 million Measure A, are a wish list of projects that the district prioritizes and funds as many of them as it can. In fact, this summer and fall the district has budgeted $30 million in Measure A funds to upgrade aging schools, science labs and campus security projects, which include installing cameras at single points of entry and door locking hardware that is operated remotely from a school’s front office in case of an active shooter.
“If we can use that money to modernize schools, there is nothing in there that says we have to rescind using that money for anything other than building a high school,” Crabtree said.
4. Upon the onset of the COVID19 pandemic and resulting school closures, Mr. Crabtree’s leadership was grossly negligent in sustaining a level of quality education for our students and educational support for parents and families.
Response: “Our district, like many others, were 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. Considering the nature of this, I would say they did an outstanding job.”
“I’d like to know one district that was prepared for this [pandemic]?” he rhetorically asked the recall proponents.
Crabtree said the shelter-in-place order came from the state and not the VUSD board. Given the short time frame in which districts had to work with, Crabtree said educators were forced to come up with a curriculum that offered review for those who were not proficient and challenge those ready to move onto new material.
“We did absolutely the best we could,” Crabtree said. “I’m assuming they went with the best possible way to make [the situation] what would be the most equitable.”
The district also had to weigh the health concerns of staff members and family members who had underlying health problems putting them at risk for contracting the virus, such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, three of the most prevalent morbidities in Tulare County.
“What are we going to do with teachers afraid to go back due to COVID because of underlying health problems?” he asked.
The district is still staring down the issue that those teachers who would benefit most from not returning to the classroom due to health issues are often the least qualified or willing to teach with new technologies.
“What do you do with those teachers?” Crabtree asked. “I’ve been trying to get technology into the district since way before [COVID-19] because I felt like we were way behind. It took something like this to bring it to the front and get people to believe in it.”
The recall effort is being organized by Brittany Christenson, who has two children ages 5 and 7 attending VUSD schools. Christenson is co-administrator of the Facebook page “Parents of Visalia Unified Students,” which has grown to 2,500 members in less than a year by inviting parents “to become involved with our district’s decision making processes.” Christenson has been a voice for parents who felt they were not being heard by the board by raising issues and calling for a return to traditional school during the public comment periods and public hearings of the school board’s virtual meetings. Others who signed the petition include: Tim Ramage, Jennifer Ramage, Rashelle Nelson, Scott Nelson, Debby Christenson, James Christenson, Scott Olson, Sandra Olson and Clayton Christenson.
Crabtree said, “It irritates me because they are challenging my integrity and I can’t defend myself. I’m not on Facebook and this is a perfect example of why I don’t like social media. Somebody will control the narrative and that narrative is truly being controlled by an administrator of that page that is attacking me.”
Crabtree, who moved to Visalia in 1979 after serving in the Vietnam War, said he is extremely invested in the success of VUSD. Both his daughters graduated from Visalia schools and two of his grandchildren are currently enrolled in schools in the district.
“If I have to fight to defend my integrity, I’m certainly going to do that,” the 70-year-old Crabtree said. “If they manage to kick me off of the board by recalling me, then I will be very proud of what I have accomplished in my years on that board. I believe I always did the right thing, even though I wasn’t always right, and I will stand by that forever.”
Proponents have until this Friday, July 10 to submit their blank petition to the elections office. That begins a back and forth process to ensure that the petition is legally formatted in compliance with state law before the petition can begin circulating.
Once the format is approved by the elections office, proponents will have 120 days to gather enough signatures to place the recall on the ballot. Local elections require 20% of the registered voters in a district between 10,000 and 50,000, which equals just over 2,400 signatures from Crabtree’s Trustee Area 4, based on the voter registration on the day of the format is approved. The petition can only be signed by those who are registered to vote in Trustee Area 4.
The elections office will then have 30 business days (excluding weekends and holidays) to verify the signatures. If enough signatures are verified, the school board has 14 days to order an election to possibly recall Crabtree at least 88 days but less than 125 days after the date of the order. If the board does not issue the order, the elections office will calendar the election on its own.
Emily Oliveira, elections program coordinator for the county, said the last successful recall of a local elected official in Tulare County was in July 2017, when 81% of Tulare voters recalled former Tulare Hospital board president Dr. Parmod Kumar. That process, which went pretty smoothly, Oliveira said, took about nine months from the filing of the notice of intent to recall to the actual recall election.