New VUSD trustees assert themselves

Reggie Ellis

Jacquie Gaebe, Megan Casebeer Soleno and Christopher Pope begin asking questions on the minds of parents and teachers

VISALIA – Newly sworn in trustees wasted no time in asserting their new roles on the Visalia Unified School District board asking questions on the minds of parents, calling for stricter adherence to board policy and showing an interest in greater accountability.

Shortly after being sworn in at the Dec. 15 meeting, Jacquie Gaebe, who succeeded William Fulmer as Trustee Area 7 representative, halted a motion by trustee Joy Naylor to nominate Walta Gamoian as the new board president after it had been seconded. Gaebe, currently an area superintendent for VUSD’s Adult School, said president John Crabtree had not opened the floor for a discussion to all of the board members to express their interest in running prior to the motion being made. Megan Casebeer Soleno, who replaced Niessen Foster as the Area 5 representative, called the motion unlawful and asked for it to be withdrawn. Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said it was not the normal procedure but that it was not illegal because it was not in violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law.

Crabtree went ahead with the motion because it was seconded but failed 3-4 with Gaebe, Soleno, new Trustee Area 6 representative Christopher Pope and Juan Guerrero voting no.

“I want to set a precedence that we follow protocol,” Gaebe said.

After a brief discussion for nominations, Gaebe motioned to make Guerrero president as Guerrero was the longest tenured board member (he’s been on the board since 2001) and the current board clerk. The motion was seconded by Soleno and passed 6-1, with Naylor voting no. Understanding the optics of the move, Soleno quickly motioned for Gamoian to replace Guerrero as board clerk. The motion passed 7-0 in the board’s first unanimous vote.

A retired teacher and parent, Pope brought up an issue on the minds of both when he asked if district administration had considered taking students’ temperatures before allowing them to enter campus. Gamoian echoed his concerns.

Ravalin said that is something they have done with cohorts, subpopulations that returned to campus before the school waiver was approved, but that there were limitations to doing that for preschool through second grade students who returned on Dec. 7 and whenever students in grades 3 through 6 return to in-person instruction. She said touchless thermometers don’t work well, especially since students are transitioning from warm cars to winter air and temperatures must be taken by a health professional, of which each site only has one school nurse.

“It hasn’t seemed appropriate,” Ravalin said. “We have symptoms checker [a checklist of questions the student must answer] and we have a school nurse take them inside and monitor them if they have symptoms.”

Gaebe asked Ravalin to give more clarification on why the district decided to delay the return of grades 3 to 6 in what was the first public meeting since the Dec. 10 announcement. Ravalin said the decision was solely based on guidance from Tulare County Public Health.

“We rely on medical professionals and guidance they give us on that,” Ravalin said. “Part of it is the trajectory. If it keeps going up, I’m sure they won’t say to send the students back.”

Soleno took Gaebe’s point and extended it into a discussion with Ravalin about how the county health department was looking at multiple metrics, discussions with their state counterparts, a historical trend of cases spiking after holidays and how Tulare County numbers compared with surrounding counties. The seasoned public defender than brought her remarks to a logical conclusion for those watching at home.

“The only people who can open our schools is our own community,” Soleno said. “Our collective community has to work together to bring down our numbers otherwise our high school students will never go back.”

All three new board members piggy backed off of Gamoian’s statement that ASB directors should not have to teach classes other than in an advisory role to study body leadership. “We’re putting too much on ASB directors’ plates,” she said. While Doug Cardoza, assistant superintendent of Instructional services, explained the class was intended to teach students how to reach “outliers,” students who do not traditionally engage in campus activities and clubs, the board unanimously voted to postpone their vote until they have heard from ASB directors and students. The decision was also supported by the only student at the meeting, Joyce Park, an El Diamante High School student who serves as the student representative on the board.

The board came to a consensus on most items that night. Gaebe made two requests to schedule a workshop on rules and responsibilities for the board and superintendent, including a review of the superintendent and assistant superintendent’s contracts to be better informed of the terms and conditions before formal evaluations.

“We need to be assertive and recommit ourselves to district policies and procedures that provide the foundation for effective public governance,” Gaebe said.

Crabtree suggested a board retreat to not only review those but also board policies for both new and old board members.

“It will be a refresher for us in hopes of becoming a more cohesive group of people than what we have been experiencing recently,” Crabtree said.

Brittany Christenson, founder of the Parents of VUSD Facebook page and who led the effort to recall Crabtree, thanked the former board for its decision to follow through with allowing preschool through second grade students return to campus but reminded new and old board members tonight’s meeting was a direct result of past board conduct.

“We have observed board member behavior we found to be disappointing. Dismissive to public comments, disrespectful to parents and members of community, eliminating real time public comment at board meetings and replacing it with an RSVP for comments in advance,” Christenson said. “These resulted in the election of fall 2020 and the removal of all three incumbents.”

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