Outspoken Trustee John Crabtree announces he is moving out of state to be closer to family after a challenging eight years on the Visalia Unified school board
VISALIA – After eight years of offering frank and unfiltered opinions about issues shaping public schools in California, Visalia Unified trustee John Crabtree is leaving office to pursue a more private life.
Crabtree told district administrators last month he would be resigning from the school board as of Oct. 1 because he was moving out of state to be closer to his grandchildren in Idaho.
“This is not a difficult decision for us,” Crabtree wrote in his letter of resignation. “It’s important now, that we spend as much time together with them (our grandkids) and share in their lives, especially while they are young. At this point in life, there is little that matters more than family.”
In the letter, Crabtree goes on to state he hoped his time on the board had left a positive impact on students both now and in the future. He offered his official goodbyes to administrators, staff, fellow trustees and to the public at the Sept. 28 school board meeting.
“It has been my honor and privilege to serve VUSD as long as I have,” Crabtree said. “You have a lot of big decisions ahead of you and I wish you luck.”
Crabtree lived in Southern California and served as a combat engineer in Vietnam before moving his family here in 1979. “I wanted to get my girls out of LA,” he said, noting violent crime was on the rise in the Los Angeles Basin and he wanted a place where his children could play outside without fear. Crabtree, 72, retired from the grocery industry 10 years ago and decided to return to a life of public service. With grandchildren attending school in district, Crabtree decided to seek office on the VUSD school board. There weren’t any specific issues Crabtree campaigned on, just a desire to serve his community.
“I had served my country and I felt it was time to serve my city,” Crabtree said. “I felt like I needed to give back to this community.”
He was elected in 2013, when school board elections were still held in odd years, to the Trustee Area 4 seat formerly held by Charles Ulmschneider. Also elected that year was current board president Juan Guerrero.
“I knew him before because he is a Mason and I saw him when I attended dedication events,” Guerrero said. “I thank you for your outstanding service and dedication.”
During his tenure on the board, Crabtree, Guerrero and former trustee Bill Fulmer advocated for the expansion of Visalia Unified’s career and technical education programs. Today, VUSD boasts 27 career pathways and eight linked learning academies split among its four high schools and two career-oriented programs at Mt. Whitney.
“Not everyone wants to go to college and not everyone needs to,” Crabtree said. “We need people in society to fix cars and air conditioning units and to serve as fireman and cops. And students always have the option to go to college, and we make sure they meet those requirements as well.”
Crabtree’s eight years have been somewhat tumultuous marked with controversial decisions involving an embattled system of behavioral discipline, claims of racial inequity, clashes over curriculum, battles over boundaries, a successful bond measure that failed to deliver a new high school, and public persecution over masking mandates. His term included five superintendents, six if you include current interim Doug Cardoza, who thanked Crabtree for his no nonsense approach to governance and his willingness to be direct when stating his approval or voicing his opposition.
“You always knew where he stood and there was never any guess work,” Cardoza said.
Crabtree cast the deciding vote in the board’s May 2019 decision to oust then Superintendent Todd Oto. Oto had been under intense scrutiny for the last year and a half, following an incident involving a Redwood student who wore a sweatshirt with the Confederate flag. In October 2018, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a discrimination complaint against the district with the Department of Education on behalf of a group of black students who claim the district ignored bigotry and racial hostility on its campuses. In the two years prior, teachers at several school sites voiced their opposition to the district’s Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) system to manage student behaviors in the classroom. Teachers complained that the system did not offer enough consequences for students who were unruly in the classroom and on campus, and in some instances where they threatened the safety of teachers and other students. In April 2019, Oto admitted that a clerical error in the district office had placed three of Visalia’s high schools among the Valley’s lowest for qualifying graduates for freshman admission to the University of California or California State University systems.
“No one wants to retire a superintendent who is not ready to go,” Crabtree said.
More recently, Crabtree has led the board’s charge against critical race theory, a controversial academic concept of systematic racism, especially against Black people, in American institutions and laws throughout history. Crabtree was the most vocal opponent of Global Learning Charter’s use of the Newsela online platform, which he, along with trustee Walta Gamoian, said was biased information attempting to indoctrinate students with critical race theory. The board voted to deny renewal of the teaching tool just two days before the start of the school year, forcing teachers to create new curriculum for social studies and science as the semester went on. Crabtree said he didn’t want to rehash issues on which the community was divided, but did admit social viewpoints on many issues had changed drastically in the last few years.
“A new generation of adults are raising kids and they see the world differently,” Crabtree said. “A district the size of Visalia is a pretty big ship to turn and we don’t always agree on the direction. That’s democracy.”
Hills and valleys
Crabtree’s term as president from 2019-2020 began with the announcement seven Visalia Unified schools were on the state’s lowest performing schools list, included the closure of schools during the pandemic, and ended with a parent group’s failed attempt to recall him for what they called “negligent” leadership for the previous two years, claiming he oversaw a deficit budget, a school bond which failed to deliver on its promise of a fifth high school and the closure of schools due to COVID-19.
“I need to slow down,” Crabtree said. “The last few years have been challenging.”
Despite the challenges, Crabtree said he enjoyed meeting teachers with a passion for educating youth and students who were motivated and excited to learn. He recalled unique learning experiences provided by Visalia teachers, such as a group of Redwood High School students who reverse engineered the Trojan horse of the Greek epic “The Odyssey” based only on the description in the book. He was also regaled by Valley Oak Middle School students who performed bluegrass music, fast-paced, acoustic American folk music, at a local assisted living facility.
“It was awesome,” said Crabtree, whose family roots go back to the hills of Ohio where bluegrass was a common sound. “You see this passion in so many of our teachers. It is really exceptional.”
One of Crabtree’s last actions on the board was voting on the process by which he will be replaced. Under the education code, the district must appoint someone to finish out Crabtree’s current term through November 2022 within 60 days of the vacancy or schedule a special election for April 2022. The board opted for the provisional appointment citing concerns over the cost of holding a special election and then having to hold another election for the a new term just seven months later.
“I think it is a wise decision,” Crabtree said.
The board’s unanimous decision also included the formation of a committee to oversee the application process consisting of at least the board president and interim superintendent. The board will then interview candidates at a public meeting before making the appointment. Applicants must be at least 18 years old and live in Trustee Area 4, which encompasses northwestern Visalia including Goshen to the west and north of the city limits to Avenue 368.
“I wish people in new positions the very best going forward,” he said. “This is a challenging position.”