Visalia Unified repeals superintendent’s emergency powers

Visalia Unified board’s repeal of March 2020 emergency declaration could put $8.4 million in federal funding at risk; board will consider a modified order this month

VISALIA – Parents calling for a repeal of emergency powers granted to the Visalia Unified superintendent to deal with the pandemic had their wish granted last week.

The Visalia Unified School District board voted 5-2 on Aug. 24 to repeal the emergency measure adopted by the board on March 17, 2020 following the governor’s decision to declare a state of emergency due to the spread of COVID-19. The resolution declared the existence of a public health emergency within the district and delegated authority to the superintendent to “take all appropriate action” including but not limited to closing schools, modifying school schedules, canceling or modifying activities, programs and courses as well as any other emergency action permitted by law.

Assistant Superintendent Doug Cardoza, who officially begins as interim superintendent today, Sept. 1, asked the board to table the item until staff could study the full ramifications of the decision on state and federal funding. Cardoza was specifically concerned about funding from FEMA. Part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act included $122 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding to help safely reopen and sustain the safe operation of schools and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students. Visalia Unified was allocated $8.4 million under the plan administered by FEMA.

Cardoza’s concerns were shared by trustees Megan Casebeer Soleno, John Crabtree, who noted the chief financial officer’s concerns to the action, and board president Juan Guerrero.

“There is a concern with a loss of funding if we repeal this resolution,” Guerrero said. “If do this wrong, we are at risk of losing funding.”

Trustee Joy Naylor, who made the motion to repeal the resolution, amended her motion to have staff bring back a new resolution next week with wording allowing the district to retain all of its emergency funding while repealing some of the emergency measures. All of the board members were in favor of the idea, but Soleno and Crabtree voted against taking action to avoid going two weeks without any type of emergency order in place, possibly putting funding at risk.

“I’m all for taking away this power, I just want to be safe, and because of that I am voting no tonight,” Soleno said. “But if it is brought back in the way that I hope it is, then I would do that.”

Parents applauded the decision for putting the authority to make emergency decisions for the district back in the hands of the board of trustees. Jimmy Malloy said he was not a Visalia resident but had grandchildren in the district. He said control of the district should be in the hands of elected officials and not district administrators who are not accountable to the public. He said the decision was the first step in repairing the recent history of distrust between the public and their local officials.

“We are advocating for those who can be held accountable through voting in elected representatives [to make the decisions],” Malloy said.

Brittany Christenson said the board’s decision was something parents had been calling for since children returned to school in the late fall and early spring semesters.

“Now that the board has power back, the board can address a lack of parent and family opportunities to influence decisions,” Christenson said. “We really would appreciate it if our board would include families in the decision making process.”

Christenson said parents often hear rumors about decisions the board is going to make the night before a board meeting giving parents little time to send in comments or make arrangements to appear in person at the meetings. Most recently, she said parents have been “on edge” regarding a rumor district schools will shut down soon and all students will return to distance learning.

“If this comes up, please do not send our students back to distance learning,” Christenson said. “It causes depression and mental health problems. We understand there is a crazy situation with the pandemic but there is so much more to education than safety.”

Trustee Jacqui Gaebe said she had heard that as well and asked staff to put those talks to rest. Dedi Somavia, assistant superintendent of human resources development for VUSD, said she is the lead negotiator with the Visalia Unified Teachers Association (VUTA) and she has only had a single conversation with teachers’ union president Greg Price about that, but only as a precaution if there is a new mandate from the state.

“Other than that, we have no intention of going to full distance learning,” Somavia said. “It’s just to make sure we are ready if that were to happen so that we are not unprepared.”

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