Education · Visalia

Deadlock nearly sent Visalia Unified seat to special election. Here’s who will fill last vacancy.

For a brief moment, a heated deadlock among the trustees of Visalia Unified School District appeared to nearly trigger a special election to fill the school board’s last vacancy.

And then, two front-running candidates – ousted long-time trustee Dr. Lucia Vazquez and attorney Bob Ainley – were summarily cast aside for a compromise candidate: College of the Sequoias associate political science professor Randy Villegas.

A field of four candidates applied to succeed resigned trustee Christopher Pope, who departed one year into his term amid public outcry over derogatory comments made to a gay Visalia Unified teacher.

Pope ousted Vazquez, a nine-year veteran of the board, amid a climate of parental blowback aimed school board members over the handling of school openings and closings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thursday, five of six Visalia Unified trustees were back in a similar position they found themselves nearly one month ago when they appointed Trustee Catalina Blair to succeed John Crabtree.

Following an initial battery of questions from moderator and Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Tim Hire, the five-member panel seemed to stake positioning quickly for finalists: Vazquez and Ainley.

“They’re all good,” remarked Trustee Joy Naylor.

Board Chairman Juan Guerrero and Trustees Jacqueline Gaebe, and Megan Casebeer Soleno backed Vazquez, though Casebeer Soleno also expressed early preference for Villegas, too.

Board Clerk Walta Gamoian and Naylor supported Ainley, citing his answers indicating a central focus on improving conditions for students.

“He was focused the fact we need to have parents show up, that’s always an issue,” Gamoian noted.

Naylor added that she was encouraged by the local attorney’s answers relative to Visalia’s kids.

“When you said that your guiding principle was Is this good for kids? I felt like that is something we truly need on the Board,” Naylor said.

With four votes required, neither Vazquez nor Ainley could advance for a provisional appointment, which would last until an election next November.

Instead, Visalia taxpayers would be required to foot the bill on a special election to be held in June for the five-month provisional term followed by a November election for the remaining three years on Pope’s full term.

As Guerrero began to notify Hire that a special election would likely be warranted, Casebeer Soleno piped up with a motion: name Villegas provisionally.

On a roll call vote, Villegas earned the backing of Casebeer Soleno, Guerrero, Gaebe, plus the vote of Gamoian.

Reid Stone is a contributing reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun.