Brittany Christenson says VUSD President John Crabtree has been dismissive at meetings, and his leadership led to the board being negligent with funding and mishandling the bond
VISALIA – Brittany Christenson has been a voice for Visalia Unified School District parents throughout the last year. She created a Facebook page that keeps more than 2,500 parents apprised of relevant topics regarding the district and provides a forum for them to share criticisms and accolades for the administrators and teachers who educate their children. She has also been a regular voice during the public comment portions of the board meetings during the pandemic.
But after watching the school district mishandle a bond measure and flounder at distance learning, she is ready to turn talk into action.
On June 23, Christensen organized a group of 10 parents to initiate the process to recall VUSD Board President John Crabtree for his “negligent” leadership during the last two years. Filed with the Tulare County Registrar of Voters, the “Notice of Intention to Circulate a Recall Petition” lays out four reasons for Crabtree’s recall including: 1. Adopting a budget with over $4 million deficit in 2019-20; 2. making the impact of the current state budget crisis far worse for VUSD; 3. announcing VUSD will not build the fifth Visalia high school with the General Obligation bonds approved by Visalia voters; and 4. closing down schools without sustaining a level of quality education for students and educational support for parents and families.
Crabtree responded to the allegations by calling them a joke as all of those decisions were unanimously made by all seven VUSD trustees and defended each of the votes in a July 8 article in The Sun-Gazette. Christenson responded to Crabtree’s assertions in an email to The Sun-Gazette.
“It certainly isn’t personal. I don’t know Mr. Crabtree other than having watched and called into a few board meetings over the past few months,” Christenson said. “We are parents who simply want the best for our children and their education. Mr. Crabtree happens to be my area representative so this is the avenue that was available to pursue after exhausting all others.”
Recall and response
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.
Crabtree said the deficit was simply the difference between budgeting for projects and changes one year but spending the money in another. At the beginning of the 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.
Christenson said these actions were approved by the board despite “cautions and concerns” expressed by financial administrators that the district was in an annual “deficit spending” spiral, and the reserve fund would not be able to sustain ongoing payment for such overruns.
“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,” Christenson said.
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. That funding was recently restored in a budget deal between the Governor and Legislature.
Their actions, Christenson states, resulted in significant district staff layoffs mostly to classified staff.
“So the budget may be balanced, but at the expense of many staff now out of work and by continuing to dip into reserve funds, which is a practice that is not sustainable,” Christenson wrote. “If you’re spending more than your income can pay for and keep using your savings to cover the costs, eventually you’re going to run out of savings. That’s a problem.”
At the July 14 board meeting, Dedi Somavia, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Development, said 86 classified staff were originally on the elimination list but the district was able to place over half of those in equivalent positions and two more positions were expected to be filled this week. Somavia said of the 41 who were laid off, five were offered positions but declined. The remaining 34 employees will be offered positions as they come available based on seniority.
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.
Christenson says the loss of possibly more than 30 classified staff will certainly affect student services despite Crabtree’s claim that this was “pure speculation.” Crabtree said many of those the district “lays off” each year are part of cuts to programming at the state level. 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.”
Christenson also argues that the deficit spending eats into reserves which the district will need for one-time costs, such as equipment replacement and other financial emergencies that may arise, especially during the pandemic.
“So if we run out of reserve funds because we have been using them to pay for ongoing costs, what happens if there is an emergency, like all the air conditioners at the high schools shorting out, or something like that?,” Christenson stated. “This is the ‘spiral’ that financial staff were alluding to and warning against, but Mr. Crabtree and the board continue to do it anyway.”
The district office responded in an email that the $4.2 million deficit from the 2018-19 budget was due to one-time expenses and that none of that came from Reserves, commonly known as the “rainy day” fund. The reserve fund is calculated by taking any balance from the previous year and subtracting any one-time costs the district might need.
“When the district deficit spends, it spends from fund balance,” the district stated.
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.
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.
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 big issue here is transparency,” Christenson responded. Crabtree contends that the school board still wants to build a fifth high school but that would require another bond measure, something Christenson said would be “a huge issue because of voter trust.”
Crabtree said 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.
Christenson said VUSD schools do need modernizing, and it would be good to raise funds for that goal. However, a better option would have been to ask voters what they wanted to do with the money instead of building a high school. One option would have been to give the money back.
“But from the beginning, they should have been more honest,” she said. “The new high school was the major selling point for that bond, and if voters had had all the information from the start, knowing that the money might not be used for that and may have gone towards other projects, that might have affected their choice to vote for the bond or not. That is how many of us feel at this point.”
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.
Crabtree argued that no district was ready to close down schools in the midst of a pandemic, including VUSD. He said VUSD educators “absolutely the best we could” to meet the challenge equitably for all students, regardless of their internet access or access to a device.
Christenson said other school districts used the initial weeks of the closure to conduct professional development and training in order to get their teachers and online learning up and running by the end of spring break. She said teachers were being paid and ready to teach online but were never given the chance by the district.
“We know it was more a district choice than a union one because some teachers were working at that time, including teachers under special assignment, as well as some classified staff. If it were union-driven, no teachers would have been able to work during that time.”
The district office said throughout the school closures, teachers were to have voice conversations with their students a minimum of once per week. Most parents agree that was a mixed bag of teachers ranging from those who made contact several times per week and those who students heard from once the rest of the semester.
“Regardless of who was working and who wasn’t, what happened in the spring didn’t truly benefit the kids,” Christenson said. “I personally know many teachers who were as disappointed and frustrated in these developments as the families were.”
In addition to what’s stated in the recall notice, Christenson said Crabtree has not been responsive to his constituents, namely VUSD students and their families. She said he has been “dismissive” towards community members’ concerns, at times hanging up on them or not allotting them the full public comment time they should have been entitled.
“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,” Christenson said. “From the perspective of a constituent trying to engage with their representative, that is immensely frustrating.”
Parents like Christenson have also been calling for the district to hold a parent forum where students can offer input on district plans since April. She said she and other parents have expressed this desire several times through email or over the phone.
“Each time the request was either declined or ignored,” she said. “We are now 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.”
Last night, July 21, VUSD held a virtual question and answer for parents regarding the 2020-21 reopening of schools after the Governor mandated that schools in counties on the watchlist, such as Tulare County, begin the fall semester online only. That meeting happened after press time.
“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, nor their ideas, thoughts, and concerns taken into account,” she said. “This recall is simply the next step.”
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.
“We are hoping for a representative who is willing to research the issues affecting our children, to listen to them, and to speak for them and what will be best for them,” Christenson concluded in her email. “We are hoping for this not just for our own kids but for all kids in VUSD, because they deserve the best educational opportunities available to them. We love Visalia and want to see our school district excel.”