Visalia Unified says goodbye to longtime board member William Fulmer, as well as trustees Lucia Vazquez and Niessen Foster
VISALIA – It wasn’t until after four years as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army and the end of a 33-year career in education that William Fulmer decided to run for public office. He was approaching retirement age in 2007 and decided to run because his grandchildren were starting school in Visalia Unified.
Fulmer was first elected to the Visalia Unified School District board in 2007 in a close race that included five candidates, all of which garnered at least 17% of the vote. It was the last time Fulmer faced a close race after earning three-quarters of the vote in 2011 and running unopposed in 2015. More importantly for Fulmer, his longevity on the board allowed him to present diplomas to each of his four grandchildren.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to serve on the board, a highly motivated group of people to serve students of Visalia,” Fulmer said the Dec. 8 VUSD board meeting, his last on the school board after choosing not to run for re-election.
Fulmer’s experience in a small district is something he tried to instill at Visalia Unified. Fulmer began teaching in the Monson-Sultana school district east of Dinuba after earning his bachelor’s degree from Fresno State. “I didn’t know there was a town there and I certainly didn’t know there was a school district,” Fulmer admitted. “I was flying helicopters in New Mexico and came home for a weekend interview and left with a contract in my hand.”
Fulmer ended his career having never taught anywhere outside of Sultana, a district that had only grown from 270 students to 400. During his 33 years in Sultana, Fulmer taught 5th, 6th and 7th grade, was vice principal and principal, coached every sport, cleaned classrooms and even mowed the lawn.
“In a district that small, there is nowhere to hide or go under the radar,” Fulmer said. “We knew every kid and where they were supposed to be at all times.”
Fulmer fought for Visalia to build more schools to keep class sizes down and limit student populations to mimic a small school atmosphere, but the budget was never enough to keep up with Visalia’s rapid growth.
“When schools get too big, kids get lost and that’s when you start having discipline problems,” Fulmer said.
Fulmer’s last years on the board proved to be some of the most difficult. He said his toughest decision during his tenure on the board was the vote to part ways with Superintendent Todd Oto in May 2019. In addition to being popular among staff and parents, Oto strengthened career and technical education, created a culture of inclusivity and equity and attempted innovative ways to address racial inequality and behavioral problems. Unfortunately, the two years leading up to his dismissal were some of the worst of his 32-year career including a lawsuit filed by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, implementation of the controversial Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) system to manage student behaviors in the classroom and a clerical error landing three of Visalia’s high schools on the state’s lowest performing schools list.
“When someone is a good person doing their best, it is hard to say ‘you have to go’,” said Fulmer, who was among the 5-2 majority vote to end Oto’s contract.
And then there was the pandemic. Like most Americans, 2020 has been extremely difficult to navigate, especially for a traditional educator who puts a premium on in-person interactions. Fulmer said it was difficult to hear from families who were struggling to balance work and school from home and the frustrations from households with multiple children, where one sibling was excelling while another was falling further behind.
“This will make for interesting stories one day but for now we are just living through it,” Fulmer said. “If I had to do all of my schooling on the Internet, I would have been completely blown away.”
Newly named board president Juan Guerrero said he appreciated Fulmer’s honesty and directness. “That is actually a gift and you were always willing to listen,” Guerrero said.
As he fades out of public office, Fulmer said his greatest concern is the strain in the state-mandated social studies curriculum is putting on students. He said the curriculum downplays the traditional successes of the American ideal in favor of a rhetoric which he says translates to America is evil.
“That may not destroy the country, but it may very well destroy the public school system, as parents put their children in private and charter schools, and stop allowing their tax money to support public schools,” Fulmer said.
Two others bow out
The board also said goodbye to members Lucia Vazquez and Niessen Foster. Vazquez was first elected in 2011 when she ran unopposed for Trustee Area 6 on the board. Prior to her campaign, Vazquez served as PTA president for Crowley Elementary School and was a school site counselor at Divisadero Middle School. Ravalin said Vazquez was an “advocate for those in need and marginalized in our society.” Guerrero was more specific saying she had a passion and provided a voice for the LGBT community.
“I will miss that voice and hopefully I step up for the underserved,” Guerrero said.
Vazquez said her time on the board saw many milestones, starting with helping the district recover from the Great Recession, redefining middle and high school boundaries, and ending with the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19.
“It’s been a really rough, challenging year, but through all the disagreements, every staff member, teacher and parent wants what’s best for students,” Vazquez said. “It’s been an honor to serve the children.”
Niessen Foster has served a little more than one term, if you include his previous stint on the board. Foster was most recently elected in 2018 to fill the seat vacated by the late Patricia Griswold, who passed unexpectedly in the middle of her term. Foster previously served on the VUSD board from 1999-2002. Foster was a teacher at one time before beginning his 47-year career with the U.S. Postal Service. Prior to being elected to the school board, Foster had served on site councils at several VUSD schools.
Foster not only thanked his fellow outgoing board members for their questions and wisdom, but also his opponent in the last two elections, Megan Casebeer Soleno, who lost to Foster in the 2018 special election but defeated him this November.
“I am grateful for my successor,” Foster said. “She is a woman of great gifts and will represent the 20- to 40-year-old parents. That perspective is greatly needed on this board and she will do it with grace and good will.”
Guerrero was on the board with Foster in 2001 when the district’s administration was recovering from a horrendous three-year stint in which two superintendents were fired. Visalia residents may remember the board’s firing of superintendent Sharon Tucker in 1997, just three years after taking the job, amidst budget cuts and claims of fiscal mismanagement. It took the district a year to find her successor, Linda Gonzales, who was then dismissed in September 2000 after making decisions that were unpopular with the community, such as eliminating intramural sports and band uniforms at middle schools and cutting field trips for elementary schools.
“Being a board member requires countless hours of service, whether it is attending board meetings, serving on committees, visiting schools, attending conferences, and listening to public, teachers and all of the staff,” Ravalin said of all three outgoing trustees. “It is a full-time job and we sincerely appreciate the patience and perseverance they have put into this position.”