By Reggie Ellis
visalia – Donna Martin’s unexpected decision to not seek re-election to the Visalia Unified school board opened the door for a three-way race to represent Area 5.
The race includes newcomers Patricia Griswold and Michael Washam, neither of whom has ever run for public office, and Niessen Foster, who previously served on the school board from 1999-2002.
Griswold is a special education teacher with the Tulare County Office of Education and has been an educator for 20 years. She said she understands the needs of teachers and how to present those ideas to administrators having served as the Grievances and Bargaining chairs to the Tulare County Board of Education. She also has her pulse on Tulare County thanks to her husband, Fresno Bee South Valley reporter Lewis Griswold. Two of her children have graduated from Visalia Unified with a third who is a senior at Mt. Whitney High School.
“I think Visalia does a good job but we can always do better,” she said.
Griswold said the district’s art programs, including choir, theater and band, are some of the best programs in the district. Unfortunately, she said art classes can negatively affect a student’s GPA because they are not weighted the same with core classes. She said art programs are important because they help close the achievement gap for at-risk demographics. She said this is especially important in elementary and high school.
“We do a good job of teaching in the middle but need to do a better job at both ends of education,” she said.
Michael Washam said he also feels the district is doing a good job of educating students but would like to see more transparency in the board’s decision making processes.
“I was involved [as a parent] with the boundary decision last year and I was concerned with how the process was handled,” Washam said.
As assistant director for economic development with Tulare County’s Resource Management Agency, Washam said he is well versed in handling public hearings and proceedings that fall under the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law. He said his eight years of county government experience will help include more parents in the dialogue with the board and staff. Both Washam and his wife have been substitute teachers with the district since moving to Visalia in 2007. Washam said he has been very impressed with how all of the high schools are rivals in sports, but come together off the field.
“I was very impressed that all four high schools do a single prom,” Washam said. “We need that balance to keep that community spirit which makes Visalia unique.”
Washam said there are a lot of things Visalia Unified does well, but the one area it needs to raise the bar is academic achievement. He said there needs to be a renewed focus on helping teachers deal with classroom discipline quickly so that they can get back to creating a learning environment where students succeed.
“We need to be that shinning star that other districts point to,” Washam said. “That’s where we need to get back to.”
Niessen Foster might be a familiar face to longtime Visalia residents. Despite a 33-year career in the U.S. Postal Service, Foster has a history degree with an emphasis in elementary education and has always had in interest in the education field.
Foster served on the board from 1999-2002 and is running on many of the same issues he brought up 20 years ago – class size reduction, vocational education and transparency.
Foster said Visalia Unified has done a good job of meeting statewide standards but is missing the deeper level of learning that occurs with lower student-teacher ratios. He said every piece of science and data he has read says that class size reduction works. Some would argue the reasons class size reduction is not implemented is due to funding, but Foster says budgeting is up to the board and he would rather take money from one area to put back into the classroom, even if it means disagreeing with staff recommendations.
“I want to make sure people understand that the superintendent works for the board and that the board does not work for the superintendent,” he said.
He also said so much experience in our educational system has been lost to retirement that the district needs to do a better of job training a new generation of administrators on how to properly evaluate young teachers who are rapidly entering the classroom.
“We have good leadership but there is a high turnover rate of new teachers,” he said. “We invest a few years in them and then they go to another district. It used to be the other way around. Visalia was where teachers wanted to end up.”
Rather than rely on social media and email blasts, the 65-year-old letter carrier is going door to door to talk with voters about the district. “One woman said, ‘this was the first time anyone has ever asked me for my vote,’” Foster said.
If elected, Foster said he will visit at least one school site per week and will hold office hours “before the board meeting or even at a space in the mall” where community members can come talk to him if they are uncomfortable speaking up during a school board meeting.
“I’m a hands-on kind of person,” said Foster, who has lived in Visalia since 1983. “I am very visible in the community and that won’t change.”
Area 5 is the only seat on the ballot for the school board after incumbents Lucia Deanda Vazquez and William Fuller were unopposed for Area 6 and 7, respectively.
Area 5 is an upside down ‘L’ shape encompassing an area stretching north to Highway 198, south to Caldwell Avenue, east to Santa Fe Avenue and west to Mooney Boulevard and Demaree Street.