Visalia Unified selects former kindergarten teacher and PTA volunteer Catalina Blair over eight other candidates to fill vacancy left by John Crabtree’s resignation
VISALIA – In a field of nine candidates vying for an appointment to a single seat, Visalia Unified School District’s board had the option of selecting the district’s former superintendent whom the board dismissed in 2019, a parent who led the effort to recall the last board member to serve in the seat, a man who lost an election for the seat in 2013 and its most vocal opponent of COVID safety protocols.
Instead, it selected a former private school teacher who has taken a leadership role in the PTA at her children’s public elementary school.
At a special board meeting on Nov. 2, the school board appointed Catalina Blair to serve as the trustee for Area 4. The vacancy was created by the resignation of former Trustee John L. Crabtree on Oct. 1, 2021. During the special board meeting, the board interviewed nine candidates for the vacant seat in an open meeting. She said she remembered seeing Crabtree visit her children’s school and how he would encourage students to speak at board meetings.
“It’s really important, and I believe that being a part of the campuses that are in your district are really important,” she said.
Blair was born and raised in Visalia, attending Visalia schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. 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.
Blair was one of nine candidates who qualified for the position. Former Superintendent Todd Oto, who was dismissed unceremoniously by the board in 2019, Brittany Christenson, who led the failed recall effort of Crabtree last year, David Alviso, who was narrowly defeated by Crabtree in the 2013 election, and Crystal Reynolds, who has been one of the board’s most vocal opponents of mask and vaccine mandates, were the most recognizable names in the group. Other candidates included experienced educator Juan Lopez, realtor Erik Anderson, banker Brent Amos and retired military veteran Clinton Cain.
During the public forum, candidates answered five questions from moderator Gail Zurek submitted by labor groups, board members, the student representative to the board and a parent group. In their answers, nearly all of the candidates prioritized preserving teachers during budget cuts, agreed parents were crucial to student success and having a passion for all students, and not just those in a single district. It was Blair’s inclusive language and long history of school involvement which impressed the board.
“Having parents on campuses helps to create culture, life and joy to what would otherwise just be a building,” Blair said. “It is so important to have open house, movie nights, and band concerts so families can get together an d are meeting each other.”
After the questions, each of the board members named their top three finalists who were then added to a board for discussion. Blair was on short list for four of the six trustees. Trustee Megan Casebeer Soleno said she appreciated Blair’s comments about being collaborative and providing a parent perspective and trustee Joy Naylor liked her direct involvement at a school site, and Trustee Pope said parents like Blair “bring school to life.” Trustee Walta Gamoian said her top three, including Blair, were people who could listen to the community and heal the board’s relationship with the community.
Noting Blair had two more votes than any other candidate, Gamoian motioned to appoint Blair to the Area 4 seat. Despite calls for further discussion on other candidates, the board unanimously voted to appoint Blair.
Blair then took the stage and assistant superintendent Dedi Somavia issues the oath of office. Her first official meeting was on Nov. 9. Blair will finish out the rest of Crabtree’s term ending in December 2022. She will have to run for office in November 2022 if she wants to retain her seat on the school board.
“The board was transparent, fair, and we did our due diligence,” board president Juan Guerrero said. “During the selection, it became apparent that one candidate had received a majority vote. On behalf of the VUSD Board of Trustees, I would like to congratulate Catalina Blair on her appointment to Trustee of Area 4.”