Visalia Unified to fill school board vacancy Dec. 9

Visalia Unified School District Board will hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. at the COS Theatre to publicly interview candidates for the Trustee Area 6 seat on the school board

VISALIA – Visalia Unified trustees are expected to appoint a new board member on Dec. 9 to fill the last vacancy on the school board.

The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at the College of the Sequoias Theatre and will be webcast live at Visalia Unified School District’s (VUSD) board will publicly interview four candidates to fill the Trustee Area 6 seat vacated by Christopher Pope, who stepped down on Nov. 9 following negative statements he made about a gay teacher’s sexual orientation. The candidates are Bob Ainley, Gwendolyn Schrank, Lucia Vazquez and Randy Villegas.

The board has laid out a similar format for filling the Area 6 seat by provisional appointment used to appoint Cataline Blair to the Trustee Area 4 vacancy last month. During the public forum, candidates will answer questions from a moderator submitted by labor groups, student representatives, parents and trustees. The board will name finalists and ask additional questions. The board will, at that time, consider making the provisional appointment and the selected individual will be administered the oath of office. The forum is part of a special meeting of the board, so there will be time for public comment on the candidates, which is limited to 2 minutes per person and a total of 20 minutes.

Whomever the board appoints to the position will serve until the next regular election, which will be held in November 2022. At that time, the Area 6 voters will elect a candidate to serve the remainder of the term trough 2024.

The Candidates

Former VUSD trustee Dr. Lucia Vazquez has thrown her name into the fold after losing by just eight votes to Christopher Pope in the 2020 election after nine years on the board. Since that time, Vazquez has been substitute teaching at local districts and working as a consultant for the Equal Voice Collaborative Network.

“The pandemic has been very hard on everyone,” Vazquez stated. “Tough decisions will continue to be made. I believe I can bring a balance of some fresh eyes, and a historical perspective to the board.”

Vazquez said her distinction as being the only Latina elected to the board provides her with a unique perspective others don’t possess. She has a master’s degree in world cultures and a doctorate in organizational leadership. She said VUSD’s ability to serve a diverse student population is one of its greatest strengths.

“My activism in the community, working in the community though my non-profit work, doing community assessments, and my years of interviewing members of the public have also prepared me for the trustee position,” Vazquez stated.

Vazquez said the district’s greatest weakness is the lack of continuity in its administration. VUSD has had three superintendents and is hiring a fourth in the last six years. Throw a global pandemic into the turnover at the top, and the district has had trouble finding its footing. She said the pandemic has created divisions in the community, evident in her 2018 race against Pope. Vazquez was in favor of allowing students to create a Black Lives Matter message board on the western fence of El Diamante High School and against the return of in-person instruction until Tulare County had moved out of the most restrictive tier of the Governor’s color-coded system to slow the spread of the virus on a county-by-county basis while Pope considered the signs a political campaign, which are banned on school campuses, and was in favor or reopening for early for students and teachers willing to do so.

“There has been much emotion, hurt, exhaustion and loss in these last two years,” Vazquez stated. “I am willing to study the issues and the ever-changing guidelines and mandates of this pandemic.”

Bob Ainley is an attorney who co-founded the Visalia-based law firm Ainley Alipaz Webb and owns a stake in the Darling Hotel. In his application, Ainley said his family has had a long history of service in the district as teachers, staff and coaches. Professionally, he has spent a career protecting vulnerable populations, including children. Before moving back to Visalia in 2014, Ainley used his legal talents in the Philippines assisting with anti-child sex trafficking operations and prosecutions, a stint with the United Nations and with the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office.

“I have witnessed how children are used and discarded in the course of the selfish pursuits of adults,” Ainley said. “For better or worse, those experiences have shaped the lens through which I view kids and our duties as adults to them.”

Ainley said he felt he could be stabilizing presence on the board and help rebuild relationships between the board and the community. Ainley pointed to his involvement as a board member for the COS Foundation, Family Services of Tulare County and Visalia Chamber of Commerce. He said he believes the district needs to focus on student needs and that VUSD administration, staff and parents need to get on the same page and find common ground.

“[M]y personal history and volunteer work give me significant buy-in to this district and this community,” Ainley stated. “I am not an outsider, so the consequences of this board and failure to engage with it will be felt by my children–I take that seriously.”

Gwendolyn Schrank is a former children’s ministry pastor who is now CEO and founder of Clubhouse Visalia, a community-based nonprofit which works to provide people with mental health find opportunities for employment, education and housing. Schrank has been involved with public schools for more than 20 years going back to Milwaukee in 1997. After moving to Visalia in 2003, she began volunteering at VUSD schools and worked as a teacher’s assistant at Roosevelt School in Tulare from 2016-2018.

“The children and youth are our future and I would continue to provide my personal and professional experiences and resources to advance VUSD goals of providing equal opportunity for all individuals in the district programs and activities,” Schrank stated.

Schrank has also been involved with community-based boards in Visalia and throughout the county including Alta Family Medical Clinic in Dinuba, Suicide Prevention Task Force, African American Advisory Council, Adult System Improvement Committee, Childrens System Improvement Committee, Wellness and Recovery Committee and the Mental Health Cultural Competency Committee. She said she appreciated district administrators and staff who she has seen knock on doors to check on students, paint over graffiti and come together to love and support each other.

“Building collaborative relationships and partnerships has been the key to success in everything that I’ve done and will continue to use these techniques to learn, grow, and advocate for a better partnership with the community, families, and organizations within the county for Area 6 if appointed,” she stated in the application.

As an African American, Schrank said she brings a different cultural background and a unique, diverse perspective to the board. She said her job as a board member will be to listen, get the facts, build relationships in the community and then discuss those issues the board and administration to provide a proper perspective. One of her goals it to help the district improve its partnerships with community organizations to bridge some of the divides in the community.

“The areas that I think need improvement comes from a lot of division that has taken place in society as a whole, but not necessarily the district,” she said. “I think that people have used political problems to try to control the community by bringing those conflicts into the school district.”

Randy Villegas is a professor of political science at College of the Sequoias who has only lived in the district for about 6 months and has only been a Tulare County resident for a little over a year. Prior to that, Villegas was a teaching fellow at UC Santa Cruz and percussion coach there as well as Kern High School District. He currently volunteers as the drumline coach at Golden West High School. Villegas pointed out his last two stops in his educational career, Kern and Visalia, were ranked the first and second worst cities for Latinos seeking higher education, according to an article in The Atlantic. He said witnessed “racial discrimination in educational spaces” at a young age when his school district in Bakersfield was sued for expelling students of color at a higher rate than the national average.

“In a place often recognized for these challenges, I have been able to transcend those odds and am guided by a deep sense of civic responsibility,” Villegas stated. “I want our Central Valley communities to flourish and reverse those statistics we are known for.”

At COS, Villegas has served on the strategic plan equity task force, facilitated community conversations as part of its civic engagement speaker series. During the pandemic, he has volunteered with the United Farm Workers Foundation doing food distributions and vaccination clinics in Visalia and the surrounding area. In job as a political science professor, he stays up to date with state and federal policies and wants to make sure the district is adequately prepared for the Ethnic Studies graduation requirement.

“As a school board member, I can contribute my experiences, perspective, and passion for student success and education in a manner that seeks to rise above partisan politics in order to fulfill the needs of our students and community,” Villegas stated.

Villegas sees the district’s outstanding school pride, daily attendance, award winning performing arts and vocational programs and high involvement in clubs and sports as examples of the culture, pride and commitment community members and staff have to the district and its students. He said he wants to improve upon the district’s engagement in order to improve student outcomes for every student.

“As a board, we must also ensure that decisions, policies, and procedures are designed with accessibility and equity in mind,” Villegas stated.

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