Visalia Unified School District’s new superintendent inspires many board incumbents to run for another term
TULARE COUNTY – Community members who lined up at the podium to challenge local school board members during public comment the last two years are now lined up on the ballot to challenge them for their seats for the next four years.
Tulare County’s largest school district, and perhaps its most controversial over the last two years, will be the most contested local school board elections this November. There are currently four out of seven seats on the ballot for Visalia Unified School District. Incumbent school board president Juan Guerrero is running for reelection in district two and has served on the board since 2001. He is currently running against College of the Sequoias trainer and professor Paul Belt. Guerrero is one of many that attributes his desire for reelection to new superintendent Kirk Shrum because of his dedication to academics and getting involved in the community.
“I believe we hired a fantastic superintendent that takes us back to the way my city used to be back in the early 2000s,” Guerrero said. “The reason I’m running [again] is because I want to work with him to bring us back to the prominence that we had here in Visalia Unified.”
Guerrero was added onto the school board at the very start of the millennium and has experienced multiple superintendent changes, splitting VUSD into seven districts, a recession, a stadium build and a pandemic. Guerrero desires to get back to the work that the board was first doing in the 2000s, when they focused on the “bread and butter” of academics. He believes that the new leadership will be the catalyst for change that VUSD has needed.
“We did a lot of work to make ourselves better and put our nose to the grindstone,” Guerrero said. “We keep trying to make it better. I think we’re headed in that direction right now.”
There are four candidates running for district four. Catalina Blair was appointed in 2021 to fill in for former board member John Crabtree, who resigned last October because he was moving out of state. Blair said she not only cares about her own children in VUSD, but all children. She hopes to be elected and continue working with Shrum and the board towards a stronger district.
“[Shrum] is absolutely moving forward and our entire board is backing him up. I want to stay in this position because I know that I believe in what he’s doing,” Blair said. “I want to continue moving forward and looking at the future. I know that there is so much more that Visalia Unified can do and our city will be better because of it.”
Todd Oto is also running for district four, and is the former superintendent of VUSD. He placed his name on the ballot after resigning from the district in 2019. He was originally dismissed after a closed session meeting where he later resigned, which was met with booing crowds and lines of people in support of Oto. He was dismissed after tensions rose from VUSD regarding poor test scores and behavior, but many parents and supporters protested in favor of Oto. He said he wishes to serve on the board and hopes to offer his years of education experience and care for students to the board.
“We’ve had influences from lots of different things over the past couple of years that rightfully have shifted the focus,” Oto said. “We’re coming back towards a more normal kind of school year. Focusing back again on kids and achievement is really where the board needs to be working.”
Crystal Reynolds and Jesus Morales-Grace are also set to run for the open seat in district four. Morales-Grace is the owner of ARPAC Financial Solutions. Reynolds is the owner of Momentum Dance Academy where she has taught as a dance instructor for roughly 25 years. She hopes to see enhancements in academics, increased enrollment in school clubs, sports and visual and performing arts programs.
“I have come to realize over the past two and a half years of attending biweekly board meetings, that community voice, input and concerns are no longer accepted by our current board,” Reynolds said. “Community feedback is imperative to help facilitate and foster our students’ unique and inherent growth potential.”
District one incumbent Walta S. Gamoian, former science teacher, is running against Jesse Perez. Gamaoian was first elected in 2018 and was unanimously reappointed last term by the board along with Guerrero. She too believes that Shrum’s ambitions will bring VUSD back to the heart of student success.
“He is beginning the great work I dreamed about when I first ran for the board, and I just want to be part of that again,” Gamoian said. “One of my big core values is that every child feels welcome at our school, that they belong. They belong to the school community and they belong to this city of Visalia.”
Perez is a jiu jitsu coach, a parent of four and a United States Marine Corps veteran. The main concerns Perez has are the low academic standards and expectations of students, and the lack of college preparedness. He expressed his concerns with VUSD only requiring two years of math instead of three, which is the minimum requirement for a university or California state college. It puts students behind before they even begin, according to Perez.
“I’m running because I feel like I could be a voice for our community, or our parents and some concerns and bring some value to the school board.” Perez said. “If we’re fighting with each other, we’re never going to accomplish anything. We [have] to all come together and do what’s best for our kids.”
Incumbent Randy Villegas is running for district six after being appointed last December, just six months after moving into the school district. He will be running against Jonelle Murphy who is a parent of students in VUSD.
“Some of the issues I want to address are continuing to work towards A-G alignment in our graduation standards,” Villegas said. “I believe that every graduate of our district can be college and career ready. Additionally I want to support dual enrollment classes and other opportunities for students to earn college credit, so we save our families thousands of dollars, and so that kids know that they are in fact college material and capable of earning a degree.”
Murphy is a mother whose children were in school during the COVID-19 pandemic. She believes VUSD did not handle the pandemic well and felt that a change needed to happen. The changes she wishes to implement are offering higher level courses in schools, more special interest and college courses available to students, more extracurricular activities and less classroom distractions.
“I am running because I am tired of sitting on the sidelines with no say in my child’s public education,” Murphy said.
TULARE, EXETER AND PORTERVILLE CANDIDATES
Tulare City School District – that oversee elementary schools in Tulare – has five members but only one seat on this year’s ballot, which is area five. Incumbent William Adkins will be running against parent Connie Diaz. Likewise, of the seven districts in the Exeter Unified School District, only area two is on the ballot this year. Incumbent Amanda Kay Reser Renteria will be running against Julie Watson. Rentaria is currently the principal of Woodville Elementary School. Watson currently works at Exeter Unified School district as a personnel analyst.
“I genuinely am a servant-type leader, and I see the board as being an opportunity for me to serve,” Renteria said. “It means a lot to be able to serve on the board, and a great opportunity to continue to serve the teachers that I taught with, the administrators that I was in office with and the students that I taught at one point.”
Porterville Unified School District has seven districts, two are up for election. Area three incumbent Pete Lara will be running against Cheryl McCrillis. Lara has been a part of many PUSD changes, such as the new STARBASE program that allows students to learn about STEM, as well as the Pathways program that educates children based on their areas of interest.
“We don’t give them just an education, we give them the opportunity,” Lara said. “The whole concept of their pathways is that kids choose to be there.”
In area five, incumbent Felipe Martinez is running against Rae Dean Strawn. Martinez stressed the importance of transparency with parents and how vital it is to the board. He also hopes to continue helping students get back on track after online learning.
“Any governance is only as good as the people that work directly with that government body, to provide all the crucial information to folks who are making the decisions, so that they’re well informed all the way around,” Martinez said. “Education is the one thing that gets everybody going forward.”
FARMERSVILLE, WOODLAKE AND LINDSAY CANDIDATES
Farmersville Unified School District currently has three seats open, but only two incumbents running. Incumbents Johnny Alvarez and Jorge Vasquez will be running once again for reelection. Isamar Hernandez-Ramos, who was appointed to fill a vacancy, is not seeking reelection. Sabrina Gomez, Cynthia Godwin, and former city council member Ruben Macareno will be running as well.
Macareno released a statement when declining to run for city council for another term, and said he had completed his goals as a councilman. Now he’s seeking a seat on the school board with support from many groups, such as the Farmersville Teachers Association. Macareno’s late brother, Martin Macareno, previously served as the board’s president.
“I am for challenging our most highly performing students to those with some learning difficulty, as well as building a relationship with COS, Fresno State and the Ivy League Project,” Macareno stated. “Student success is the priority.”
Lindsay Unified School District area one incumbent Anthony Vaghn Blue will be running against school teacher Brenda Gonzalez. Blue emphasized the positive work that has been done by the board in recent years, including getting students back to in-person learning after the COVID-19 pandemic. Though there is still room to grow, Martinez said the district is working hard to better students and appreciate teachers.
“I appreciate the support that I’ve always gotten from the community of Lindsay and I plan to continue to serve as long as they will allow me,” Blue said.
In area five, incumbent Alex Ray Flores will be running against Dennis Doane, former principal at John J. Cairns Continuation High School in Lindsay. Flores has been on the board for many years and hopes to continue being transparent with the public and with parents. He also hopes to meet students’ various needs and prepare them for the world.
“I want our learners to just be able to come to school and enjoy these years because they go so fast,” Flores said. “We want them to enjoy being in school, sports, clubs, activities, dances, whatever it is, enjoy this time in school, because this is the time you’ll never get back and these memories are gonna last you for a lifetime.”
Woodlake has seven areas. In area B of Woodlake Union School District, incumbent Donna Fraser will be running against firefighter Ryan Wallace. Fraser has been a school teacher for many years and brings her experience to the table when it comes to board meetings. Fraser said she is excited with the direction the school board is taking, as they are adding a new reading program and more AP classes.
“I feel like I know more about the curriculum and the different things that the school does, because I did it,” Fraser said.
In area D, Rolana Rochin is running for the seat that was held by her late husband, Richard Rochin, who was on the board for 16 years up until June 2022. Rochin will be running against former Woodlake council member and social worker Florencio Guerra, who was removed from the council in January after a slew of unexcused absences. Retired educator Al George and Woodlake Kaweah Health Center physician Rocio Medina are also running for the seat.