Seven candidates seek three seats on VUSD board

Two incumbents and two challengers face of in Area 5 and 6, while five candidates vie to fill the seat of a third board member not seeking re-election in Area 7

VISALIA – In an election where education, health and local representation are at an all-time premium, a large swath of Tulare County will turn their attention to the Visalia Unified School District board elections.

While most of the candidates are current or former educators, some are social workers, public defenders, small business owners, letter carriers and weavers. There are two incumbents running against two challengers each to remain on the board and a third race with where five people competing for the seat being vacated by William Fulmer, who did not seek re-election. Due to the number of candidates running, The Sun-Gazette sent each of them a questionnaire with seven topical questions on the minds of many voters:

1.) The teacher’s association has held two rallies calling for a change in the district’s A-B scheduling, which will remain in place for either online or in-person learning. Should the district keep the schedule or change it and why?

2.) Measure A was sold to voters as the pathway to building a fifth high school. Now that there is not enough state or local matching funds to build the high school, what should be done with the bond proceeds?

3.) The district has been criticized for its handling of student claims of bigotry, inequitable treatment, and the Black Lives Matter signs at El Diamante? Do you agree with the steps the district has taken on these issues or would you have done something different?

4.) Do you support the current administration? Why or why not?

5.) What are your thoughts on how distance learning has gone this fall? What would you change, if anything?

6.) Do you support reopening campuses for in-person instruction this semester? Why or why not?

7.) Why should voters in your district vote for you?

Trustee Area 5 is a rematch from two years ago between incumbent Niessen Foster and senior public defender Megan Casebeer Soleno. Foster lost the seat to Patricia Griswold in 2016 and then ran to fill Griswold’s seat after the respected educator unexpectedly died in office earlier that year. Foster edged out Casebeer by less than 1% of the vote in a three-way race that also included Lori Quinzon. Casebeer declined to participate in this year’s questionnaire. Trustee Area 5 is south of Highway 198 between Demaree Street and Santa Fe Avenue.

Lucia Vazquez was elected to Trustee Area 6 in 2011 and has ran unopposed until now. This year, the weaver with a doctorate in education will be challenged by retired teacher Christopher Pope, who taught for 22 years most recently at Annie Mitchell Elementary. Trustee Area 6 runs from Highway 198 north to Riverway Drive between Mooney Boulevard and Santa Fe.

For the first time in 13 years, someone other than Bill Fulmer will represent Trustee Area 7. Veteran educators Jacquie Gaebe and Nora Allstedt, who have a combined 53 years of education experience, will be challenged by private businessmen Randy Evans and James Reynolds and social worker Colijia Feliz.

Lucia Vazquez
Trustee Area 6

Trustee Area 6

Lucia Vazquez(i)

Age: 62
Vocation: Weaver

Relevant Experience: Past school site council, PTA President, and parent. Doctorate in education, master’s in latina literature and a bachelors in biology. I have been a substitute teacher and worked in and with school districts for several years.

1.) The A-B scheduling should remain for at least nine weeks. The model was used for distance learning to limit switching student schedules when we all return to regular classes. This is new to everyone. We need to gather useful information from everyone to reevaluating and adjusting the policy where needed.

2.) Only a portion of the bond was designated to use for the high school. There are no “proceeds” only permission from the community to purchase bonds. We should send the question back to the taxpayers. Should we hold the permission or use it to continue modernizing and repairing the campuses we have now?

3.) The removal of signs was a safety precaution. A response to threats of violence by adults. Visiting the location of the BLM protests, I found the participants respectful and reverent. We all have a responsibility to work to realize a just society for all of its members. I would do something different.

4.) We have many talented and skilled administrators in the district. The top key Administration of the Visalia Unified School District are a new team. The pandemic was something that almost none, including the most experienced, could have anticipated. I think that site administrators are working hard to support their teams.

5.) This pandemic has had many challenges. We have a had a huge learning curve. Everyone has stepped up in extraordinary ways, including our students, our teachers, principals and staff. The system of communicating the fast-moving change, have not functioned well. We need to do better at receiving and processing input from all factions.

6.) Everyone is eager to return to classes. The learning acquired at school goes beyond what’s contained in book or on a whiteboard. However, the California Education Code and health department guide our decision making. Until we have a better handle on this situation, covid-19, public safety demands not returning this semester.

7.) I represent experience, transparency and accountability. Families, teachers, and staff have come to expect that, and they deserve this from their trustees. I bring experience and a record of transparency and accessibility to provide our children with an excellent education. I appreciate your vote and support.

Niessen Foster
Trustee Area 5

Trustee Area 5

Niessen Foster(i)

Age: 69
Vacation: Mailer Carrier

Relevant Experience: Former teacher, incumbent Trustee Area 5

1.) Freedom of choice and flexibility are the reason for the Hybrid A/B schedule. Parents of children maximize their work schedule. Teachers have the freedom to adjust their daily work schedules.

2.) Visalians generously approved a $105 million Bond in 2018. California votes rejected a state bond this March. The District will modernize 42 schools with the release of $35 million. We should maintain the authority to build a high school in the future with the remainder.

3.) The District has made substantial progress in the last 12 months. The board adopted the strongest anti-bigotry resolution ever. A position of Student Equity was created. Positive school culture is now being developed. Student input is fostered with site Advisory committees.

4.) Tamara Ravalin has been a very special surprise. She is a hard worker, many a times her day stretches over 12 hours. She is transparent, she’s been a breath of fresh air. The board appreciated her honesty and straight forwardness.

5.) Teachers have made steady consistent daily progress in adopting both The hybrid A/B system and the accompanying technology. Naturally we all forward to the eventually safe return of students.

6.) Student presence at school increases learning, prevents depression and develops social skills. The District has plans to allow Special Education, foster children and homeless youth to re-enter school. We are applying for waivers for our K-2 children and will include our 3-6 grade children during our second round of waivers.

7.) I will devote my full time as Trustee. I have been endorsed by our Civic and Educational leaders. I collaborate well and I’m respectful.

Christopher Pope
Trustee Area 6

Trustee Area 6

Christopher Pope

Age: 57
Vocation: Retired Teacher

Relevant Experience: Thirteen years in business, former Chamber of Commerce President, teacher for 22 years (mentor teacher), leader in Visalia Unified Teacher’s Association, American Indian leader (Liaison for Visalia Unified and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Secretary and Treasurer for CTA American Indian Alaska Native Caucus, Western Region Director for the National Education Association American Indian Caucus)

1.) The Board and administration needs to reconsider the schedule. These rallies reflect the frustration that teachers are experiencing. The schedule needs to be revised as teachers are overwhelmed and cannot continue at the current pace. Our Teacher’s Association, school board, and administration have to reach an agreement.

2.) This bond money should still be allocated for the new high school. Voters agreed to being taxed for this reason and this reason only. These funds should not be spent in other ways. It needs to be reserved until time for construction of the new high school.

3.) Black lives matter, but the Black Lives Matter Organization has a political agenda and does not belong on our campuses. The district does not allow any other political campaigning or political activities, so this should not be an exception. I support the Board’s decision to retain police on our campuses.

4.) I do support the current administration. We have a talented group running Visalia Unified. Having said that, our teachers need support with the schedule. They do not feel the administration is listening.  It’s time to compromise!

5.) My daughter-in-law teaches in Bakersfield. They delayed school for two weeks so teachers could be better prepared to start the year. Our teachers started the year stressed. They were learning new programs while trying to tweak lesson plans that would be valuable for distance learning. TEACHERS NEED MORE PREP TIME!

6.) The cases of COVID have significantly reduced. Other states have already returned to school. I would support those teachers that don’t want to return. They can continue to teach distance learning. Families that are fearful of their children returning should also be allowed to continue distance learning.

7.) EXPERIENCE! I’m the only candidate with classroom experience. Every board meeting decisions are made that affect our parents, staff, students and literally our community. Wouldn’t these decisions be better made by someone that has listened to parents, understands staff perspective, and has experience relating to students? Time for Change!

Jacquie Gaebe
Trustee Area 7

Trustee Area 7

Jacquie Gaebe

Age: 45
Vocation: Educator

Relevant Experience: Educator for 23 years as teacher, site administrator, and district administrator.  As a site administrator, we raised student achievement over 150 points.  We did this through gathering input and feedback, establishing a shared vision, communicating effectively, and continually reflecting on our progress and next steps.

1.) The district should gather meaningful input from families and share this with staff at each school site, engaging all parties in the decision. Decisions should be supported by data for students to be successful. It should be made timely with a complete explanation and system for gathering ongoing feedback to monitor and adjust support.

2.) It begins with transparency about matching funds and costs of a fifth high school. Our community passed the bond and should have input into next steps. It could be using the money for modernization of existing facilities, re-working plans and budget for the fifth high school or rescinding the bond.

3.) Schools are public places and should be safe zones for all students. Schools should teach the values of civility, respect and positive debate. The best way to protect our individual rights to have our opinions and beliefs, is to protect those same rights for others, especially those with whom we may disagree.

4.) In my current role as a site administrator I do my best to support decisions while always trying to keep the best interests of students and staff first. Difficulty supporting the district administration stems from the lack of transparent, inclusive, innovative leadership that is essential in successful districts.

5.) Many have done a tremendous job of ensuring learning is occurring. The lack of district planning left many teachers feeling unprepared and unsure due to increased demands for technology competence. Neighboring districts who are doing much better, engaged teachers and parents in planning much earlier and provided more support and training for staff.

6.) When given discretion under current guidelines, yes, I support students returning as soon as possible. Not only because of academic content, but also for students to continue learning to collaborate, communicate effectively, integrate socially and participate in extracurricular activities. There remain options for those that need to remain in distance learning.

7.) I believe in leadership that inspires and creates opportunities for greatness to emerge and us to achieve more than we thought possible. I will work to ensure we have the systems, programs and a culture to bring out the greatness in our students, staff and schools. Our community and our students’ deserve a GREAT Visalia Unified.

Colijia Feliz
Trustee Area 7

Trustee Area 7

Colijia Feliz

Vocation: Clinical Social Worker/Trainer/Adjunct Professor

Relevant Experience: I am a mental health professional working in schools across Tulare County. I train county-wide on mental health, trauma, SEL, etc. I also teach at Fresno Pacific University and COS. I know how to collaborate, engage and hear from all groups in education.

1.) I was at their first rally on Mooney supporting, and I hear them. If the schedule is not currently working, then the district should be open to reviewing and adapting the current schedule. Teachers and students would know better what would work better to engage in distance learning.

2.) The existing funding can be used to update old buildings, equipment and reduce existing debt. The less debt we have, the more staff can be retained and paid better salaries. I know there was talk of re-drawing school boundary lines and I support this. There was gerrymandering in previous boundaries, and the schools have unequal student populations.

3.) I do not agree with the districts handling of bias, prejudice and racism. Visalia Unified has consistently been slow to take a stand against it. Which is why they have faced lawsuits. The district could have come out to say they support students of color and believe Black lives are just as valuable as white lives or any other race.

4.) I believe this question is vague. However I think there is room for improvement within the district. People are not listening to teachers, parents, students, or each other. There is no effective communication or collaboration. I think personal biases, opinions and political views are standing in the way of what the focus should be.

5.) It is no secret that distance learning is not working for anyone involved. I would have pushed the opening of schools back to give staff and teachers time to take training and learn how to teach from a distance. I would have given parents training and sat with teachers to come to an agreed upon schedule.

6.) I think we should return to campuses when it is safe to do so. I know and I get distance learning is not ideal and I would love to get back to normal like everyone else. However, I also do not want to endanger the lives of children or staff. No one’s life is worth the risk.

7.) I am an educator, a social worker, and trainer. I work and collaborate with students, parents and school staff in my daily work. I understand what it takes to listen and work together with different groups. I listen for a living as a Clinician, and believe that is one fundamental thing missing from the district. I’m also a public servant and understand that is the goal of this position, to serve the public.

Jim Reynolds
Trustee Area 7

Trustee Area 7

Jim Reynolds

Age: 65
Vocation: Started and ran ABC Taxi.

Relevant Experience: Degree in accounting from The Ohio State University. Over 30 years running multiple business systems, with an emphasis of eliminating trouble spots. While being involved with site council and parent groups, successfully steered my two children thru the VUSD system to become contributing members of society.

1.) Having heard conflicting information on the percentage of teachers supporting the rallies from Administration sources and the media, not sure of how big of an objection really exists.  And until the Governor releases the district from virus restrictions, none of it matters.

2.) Have the District support a diversified tutorial software media center which provides the students and teachers with 24 hour access to the digital content for their curriculums

3.) The District’s biggest problem stems from the fact the students have limited desire to be even attending school, regardless of their race.

4.) Until I have access to all the data, I’m not in a position to critique the current administration.

5.) Distant learning has helped let the genie out of the bottle with the potential of the internet blending with the education system. Naturally, there are many learning situations before the implementation of new systems start to run smoothly.

6.) Reopening campuses depends completely on the number of teachers willing to participate. I do not feel a teacher should be forced to work, if they feel their life is in danger.

7.) Where I can make a difference, if my area is not comfortable with the following numbers: Elementary schools rated at the bottom in the state; Math proficiency score 31% compared to state avg 38%; Reading proficiency score 48% compared to state avg 50%; Avg school rankings in bottom 50% of public schools in California with the results after spending equivalent dollars per student as Clovis; Current plan to fix issues is basically to work harder.

The aggravating part is no there’s no longer confusion in the education field on the type of instruction which produces the results we seek: Students must be excited, willing participants; Blend a face-to-face and digital curriculum to match learning styles, pace, and interests of each student.

Nora Allstedt
Trustee Area 7

Trustee Area 7

Nora Allstedt

Age: 55
Vocation: Teacher

Relevant Experience: 30 Years teaching—music (band & choir), technology coach, computer science, and teacher librarian

1.) The district must have open communication with teachers, our front line instructors about the current schedule. Teachers need to be listened to about what is working and what is not working with the schedule. Teachers are expressing that they already are experiencing burnout which is not good for student learning. Only teachers that have taught distance learning truly know how difficult it can be; they are the experts and their voices need to be a critical part of the solution.

2.) The District made the right decision to avoid high debt to build a new high school. Now, they need to look at redoing the boundaries to mitigate overcrowding at some schools. They really need to make sure to take the time to go through this process the right way in order to have well balanced schools in all respects.

3.) I believe that hiring Brandon Gridiron as the director of Equity and Student Service is a move in the right direction. There is more work that needs to be done so that all students are treated equitably. This work includes providing students and families a forum to express concerns on this issue.

4.) One of the main functions of a school board is to establish, maintain, oversee, set, provide and monitor the district. It is then the Superintendent’s responsibility to implement, direct and facilitate the board’s actions and policies. The Superintendent works for the board. Prior to the pandemic, I observed at several board meetings and at special study sessions some positive moves forward. However when the pandemic hit, the board turned over too much to the Superintendent. The board needs to take a step back and look at what is best for all students and staff.

5.) I believe that teachers are doing their best and working hard to make virtual learning work well for our students. Many of the technology challenges schools have faced have been out of the district’s control. Districts that were not 1-1 device student ratio prior to COVID really struggled to get quality devices for students due to a lack of supply. Dead zones for WiFi is a State and Federal issue not a local school district issue. Our State and/or Federal Government have to work with tech companies to create a network of open access WiFi for all students.

6.) I do support gradually bringing students back on campus following health and safety guidelines. Starting with small cohorts of students will allow school site personnel a chance to put safety protocols in place and give sites a chance to adjust plans based on what they learn. It will not do anyone any good to fully reopen and then have an outbreak of COVID in a classroom or school site. To open and then having to close again would not be good for anyone.

7.) As a teacher for the last 30 years, I understand how the education system works. I have served on district budget committees and understand how school funding works. I have vast knowledge on education code and have lobbied in Sacramento and Washington DC for better state and federal education policy. I do not have anything personally to gain by being on the board. I will be an advocate for all students, staff, and the community to provide the education system we all deserve.

Randy Evans
Trustee Area 7

Trustee Area 7

Randy Evans

Age: 58
Vocation: Insurance Claims/Parent Volunteer

Relevant Experience: I have been a parent volunteer for the District for 25 years. My son is a teacher in the district. I have been appointed to the Measure A Bond oversight committee and have been attending board meetings for the last 24 months.

1.) The teacher’s association has held two rallies calling for a change in the district’s A-B scheduling, which will remain in place for either online or in-person learning. Should the district keep the schedule or change it and why?

2.) The schedule should be changed. The teachers have demonstrated that the current schedule is not working and their concerns have not been considered by the District. There has been poor communication with the parents and student regarding “asynchronous” or “off-line” time. Parents are concerned about too much “homework.”

3.) The bond was not only for the construction of a new High School, but also for upgrading older school sites. Bonds were recently sold and those projects are underway. I support the Board’s actions to set-aside the remaining “authority to sell bonds” until the economy improves.

3.) I agree with the students that accountability needs to be implemented regarding reports of abuse. All incidents should be reviewed by site administration or through a reporting mechanism directly to the District’s HR Department. I do agree with the Student’s right to protest but use of District property was inappropriate.

4.) I believe the Superintendent started strong, but trust has degraded through the return to school process during this unprecedented pandemic. Direct, decisive decisions are lacking and there have been poor communications with everyone. The Board should retract the emergency authority from the Superintendent and provide direction the District desperately requires.

5.) The plan presented by the District does not meet the needs of our students, teachers, staff or parents. The process should be continually reviewed and adjusted as the weeks passed. I have many ideas concerning how the District could have better prepared but am limited to a 50-word answer.

6.) Subject to approval by the State and County, I do support in-person instruction for special education students, those with special learning needs and then pre-K through 3rd grade. It’s been demonstrated by the parents that these groups are especially negatively impacted by the distance learning model adopted by the District.

7.) There are currently four educators on the Board. It’s proven that diverse groups can solve problems better than a more homogenous team. When did we as a community decide that educators are most qualified to sit on the Board? We need a Board of Education, not a Board of Educators.

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