Eight candidates vying for four seats on the Visalia Unified School Board will share their ideas on education during Oct. 4 forum at Café 210
VISALIA – The last two and a half years have been a tumultuous one stretching the very fabric of American life. COVID-19 health restrictions disrupted society making us question how we care for the elderly, the effectiveness of in-person versus remote work, and, perhaps more importantly, how we educate our children.
These foundational questions have given rise to renewed interest in local politics and the offices that govern closest to our daily lives. Once an afterthought of local elections, school board races are now some of the most closely contested and watched in the nation.
There are 10 candidates vying for five seats on the VUSD school board this November and all but two of them will be appearing on stage together Tuesday, Oct. 4 during a candidate forum hosted by the Visalia Chamber of Commerce along with support from The Sun-Gazette newspaper. The forum will be held at 210 Café, located at 210 W. Center Ave. in Visalia. Doors open at 5 p.m. for time to meet the candidates with the forum beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Walta Gamoian has served on the school board since 2018 and has served as board clerk, essentially the vice chair of the school board, during most of the pandemic. The retired educator admits that many of the “systems over the past years have been broken” and that “VUSD needed change.”
Gamoian believes the board made that change earlier this year after hiring new superintendent Kirk Shrum following an extensive nationwide search. She said she has always had the goal of making every child College and Career Ready to attend a university, trade school or
vocational training courses. Since joining the board, Gamoian said the district has implemented a University of California/California State University initiative beginning in sixth grade, language acquisition for English learners, hired college and university admissions counselors for each high school and, most recently, implemented a graduation requirement for seniors to complete three years of math.
“We have the leadership in place to implement the changes necessary so our kids can perform at grade level and reach their highest potential,” Gamoian answered on the pre-forum questionnaire.
She is being challenged by Jesse Perez, a former Marine turned Bible scholar who spent three years as principal of K-8 Christian school in Goleta, Calif. Perez agrees on not only emphasizing but incentivizing college and career readiness by making sure students and their parents understand the path toward their goals.
“As a school district we must provide the district the tools they need to establish progress targets that communicate a clear path for students, schools, and parents to follow,” Perez wrote in the questionnaire.
Perez said his biggest concern for the school district is “the push of political ideology upon our students.” He said the district must refocus on learning the values of grit, hard work, merit and truth, instead of being encouraged to find victimhood, systems of oppression, and shallow thinking.
“Schools should be a place where parents know their children will be educated in core subjects and not world or political views,” he wrote. Unfortunately, Perez is unable to attend the forum.
Paul Belt agrees with Jesse Perez’s assessment of the district’s greatest challenge – to raise student achievement by focusing on education instead of indoctrination. He said VUSD should build confidence in its students’ ability to achieve higher academic goals by giving parent voice more weight than the teacher’s union, replacing divisive curriculum with traditional subjects, and using tax dollars to increase safety and improve transparency for parents and community members.
An adjunct faculty member at College of the Sequoias’ Training Resource Center, Belt said the board’s recent vote to implement a third year of math is a step in the right direction. He said he would to see more classes with real world influence such as personal finance
courses and more partnerships with the business community to develop other ideas to “give students the tools to bring their Career readiness to a higher level.”
Belt is challenging Juan Guerrero, the current board president and longest tenured member of the VUSD school board. A retired youth program director and government analyst, Guerrero said the biggest issue facing the district is the learning loss that occurred through remote learning during the pandemic. He said he will push for expanded learning opportunities for students before and after school as well as winter and summer breaks with a focus on the core subjects of English language arts and mathematics.
“VUSD needs to address learning loss at all levels especially at the elementary level,” Guerrero wrote.
Guerrero also agrees with increasing the number of VUSD graduates who are college and career ready and was the driving force behind the district setting a goal of 75% in January. In addition to expanded learning time, Guerrero said VUSD must continue its support of its eight Linked Learning Academies and 42 CTE Pathways.
“Linked Learning affords students the opportunity to explore careers in education, workforce or the military,” he said.
Randy Villegas was a firm supporter of adding a third year of math to VUSD’s graduation requirements and would like to continue aligning them with the UC/CSU’s a-g requirements “so every student graduates college/career ready.” As professor at College of the Sequoias, Villegas has been a proponent of adding a third year of lab science, such as physics, to continue raising expectations for students. Additionally, Villegas said he wants to increase dual enrollment opportunities so students are able to earn college credit and work towards obtaining an associate’s degree at the same time as their diploma.
“We need to ensure that more of our students are college/career ready and that we are supporting after school programs, athletics, and Visual and Performing Arts across all our schools,” Villegas said.
Higher expectations also means providing more support, for both students and teachers. Along with additional classes and more stringent graduation requirements, Villegas said VUSD will also “need to ensure that both students and staff have resources to address mental health, investing in psychologists, counselors, and social workers.”
“My plan is to set higher expectations for our students, and provide a high amount of resources for them to meet and exceed those expectations,” Villegas wrote.
Villegas, who was appointed to the board just nine months ago, will be challenged by VUSD parent Jonelle Murphy. The former heavy equipment operator and manager turned stay-at-home mom said none of these academic goals can be achieved without greater parental involvement. She said the current school board let the state and federal government push parents off campus and out of student life even though schools preach parental involvement is crucial to student success.
“VUSD needs to build that trust back,” she said.
One of her suggestions as an involved parent is to offer more electives that pique students’ interest and “get students excited and really thinking about what it is they want to do after high school.”
Catalina Blair will also have served less than a year on the board when election comes but may have the most experience in the district when it comes to parental involvement. She is the mother of three Oak Grove Elementary School students and is active in the school’s PTA. In addition, Blair was a lead preschool teacher for nine years at Christ for Kids Preschool in Visalia.
Since she first threw her name into the hat to fill the seat vacated by John Crabtree last November, Blair has been an advocate for getting parents back onto campus and to find new leadership that understood the need for parental involvement.
“Not only are we raising the bar in VUSD but we are providing more opportunities for Career Technical Education, providing tutoring (online and in-person) and reading intervention, and most importantly, hiring and retaining dedicated teachers who are partnered with us in this mission,” she wrote.
Vying to unseat Blair are two of the seven candidates she was selected over last fall including former VUSD Superintendent Todd Oto, who was dismissed unceremoniously by the board in 2019, and Crystal Reynolds, who has been one of the board’s most vocal opponents of mask and vaccine mandates.
An LVN turned dance instructor, Reynolds has been one of the most vocal proponents of the district asserting local control in the face of state mandates. She was not in favor of the board’s actions to implement state mandated masking, testing and social distancing for students and staff. She said the current board cited concerns of the state taking over control of the district if they did not uphold their oath to follow health guidelines set by the California Department of Public Health and the Governor under emergency powers in place during the pandemic.
“It is my genuine concern, we may already be in a ‘state take-over’ if demands and restrictions such as these are tied to the funding and the district is not allowed the choice to operate independently,” she stated in her candidate questionnaire.
Oto is running for the school board after a 32-year career as an educator, including serving as superintendent of VUSD from 2016-2019. Oto said the goal of having more students college and career ready cannot be achieved without first analyzing the numbers and percentages of students reading at grade level by fourth grade, ready to take Math I or higher at the end of the eighth grade, and completing a set of courses focused in a particular field of study in high school.
Oto said the biggest issue facing the district is not local control, but rather implementing dynamic systems such as a strong instructional model, including good first teaching; strong academic support for individual students; social and emotional support for students; clear, strong and appropriate procedures for student discipline; and relevant professional development for all staff. Oto emphasized it is the board’s job to set the goals but the role of trained educators and administrators to implement them.
“The role of the board is to set the goal for increased numbers of college and career ready graduates, and to monitor the success of the plans undertaken by district staff.
Also on this November’s ballot is Joy Naylor, the sitting VUSD school board member for Area X. The incumbent is running unopposed but her name will still appear on the ballot and could be challenged by a write-in candidate. While Naylor was willing and interested in participating in the Oct. 4 forum, she agreed not to take the crowded dais in order to give voters more time to hear from candidates in contested races.
The local discourse on who should represent Visalians at the local level will continue in three weeks when the Chamber and Sun-Gazette will host a second forum for those running for city council on Monday, Oct. 24. The forum will again be held at 210 Café, 210 W Center Ave. in Visalia, with doors opening at 5 p.m. and the forum beginning at 5:30 p.m. Both forums will have a similar format.