A turnover of the Clovis Unified school board is nearly complete.
Three new trustees on the seven-member board have been elected the past two cycles in 2016 and 2018. A fourth was appointed last year and is running to retain his seat this year. A fifth new member is guaranteed come this November.
While the district will see new faces in its elected leadership, the overall philosophy guiding the district of 43,000 students is unlikely to drastically change.
Unlike its neighbor, Fresno Unified, the drama and politics of Clovis Unified operates at a much lower level. Even campaigning promises to be collegial.
“(We) all are running nice, clean campaigns. I think that’s one big positive. There’s no backstabbing or or ugly stories coming out or bad mouthing of opponents,” said Hugh Awtrey, a trustee appointed by the board for Area 4 last year and now running in his first election.
Clovis Unified uses a hybrid system for electing board members. Although candidates must come from a specific geographical area, voters across the entire school district cast ballots in all trustee races.
Voters will decide on three seats in this year’s election. Two of those races include incumbents, while Trustee Steven Fogg is running unopposed.
There were some universal themes among the candidates. All want to end COVID-19 school shutdowns and return children to classrooms in a safe manner; all support superintendent Eimear O’Farrell; and all feel a change will be coming to the district’s election procedure.
Area 2: Voters Will Choose a New Member
Ginny Hovsepian, a trustee since 1991, opted not to run for another term, meaning either Jacob Trumble or David DeFrank will become a new trustee.
Trumble, who takes online classes at several local colleges and works part-time at Fresno Yosemite airport, thinks his recent experience as a high school student makes him the ideal candidate.
It was only last year that he graduated from Clovis West High School, where he was involved with student government.
“I’m far more well equipped to handle the challenges currently facing the district,” Trumble said. “The district is at a turning point.”
He knows what is like to participate in distance learning, having taken online classes through Fresno City College and other local schools.
DeFrank says his experience as a parent and attorney make him best-suited for the job.
“(My experience) would serve me well if I’m fortunate enough to get onto the board and just kind of seeing everything,” DeFrank said. “My work as an attorney — I collaborate with my colleagues and figure out solutions to complex problems.”
Returning students to campus is DeFrank’s top priority, as long as it can be done safely.
“Whether that’s applying for a waiver, whether that’s figuring out what kind of policies we need in place once the governor does allow for a return. It’s still going look different than it did last year,” DeFrank said.
Trumble wants to wait for clearance from state authorities.
“We shouldn’t go against the state, against the Board of Education, like Immanuel High School. We shouldn’t open before proper guidance is issued by the state,” Trumble said.
Making home learning easier is Trumble’s top concern.
“Getting that technology and those resources as well as that training to those families who don’t necessarily have the ability to provide that equipment on their own,” Trumble said.
Hovsepian has endorsed DeFrank to replace her.
Area 7: Casado Running for Another Term
In the span of four years, Christopher Casado went from the most junior member to second-most senior on the board. Only Betsy Sandoval has more experience.
First elected in 2008, Casado considered stepping aside after his third term but pushed back his decision after the turnover on the board in the past four years.
“I was the new kid on the block. And all of a sudden I’m the veteran,” Casado said. “I feel like I have an opportunity to share this with our new board members. This is what we do. Here’s why we do it this way.”
Moore says being a parent of children currently attending district schools allows her to connect with teachers and other parents, making her the best candidate.
“That is very important for anybody on the school board to be involved in the schools at that level, because the things that happen in our district and in our schools directly impact my children and my household,” Moore said.
Her medical background as a physician assistant, she says, would be an asset on the board especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inclusivity is Moore’s most important issue.
“Just making sure that every one, every student in Clovis Unified, feels like they belong,” Moore said.
Casado say returning students back in the classroom is the biggest issue for him.
“The immediate challenge is going to be getting our kids back in school. No question about it. We have to. We have to do it in a safe, healthy manner,” Casado said.
He hopes students and teachers can have the option to return in October if the state allows.
Moore generally agreed, wanting to return when it is safe and giving options to students and teachers.
Area 4: Appointed Member Faces Two Challengers
Awtrey is running for a full-term, having been appointed to the board in October 2019 to fill the seat vacated by the retiring Brian Heryford. Holt also sought the appointment and has been campaigning ever since.
Both Awtrey and Holt attended Clovis schools growing up, as have their children. They say that experience plus their involvement in civic groups gives them the edge.
Awtrey served as chairman for the Foundation for Clovis Schools, the district’s fundraising arm. His mother and wife also taught in Clovis.
“I’m very familiar with what teachers deal with,” Awtrey said. “That gives me some good insight.”
Holt says he has a better understanding of today’s parent.
“I’m probably close to their age so I can relate to some of the challenges that they see,” Holt said.
Elbaz was born in Egypt, grew up in New York, and lived around the world. She has taught and worked in education administration, which she says gives her valuable insight.
“I know what works. I know what doesn’t. And it really brings just a very different type of perspective to the school board, which currently is lacking,” Elbaz said.
Area 4 Priorities: Class Size and School Reopening
Elbaz has two children currently attending Clovis Unified schools. Her top goal is to reduce classroom sizes.
“We’re overcrowded. Our classrooms are way too inundated. Nearly 40 kids to a class is not OK,” Elbaz said. “This concept of allowing it to be OK to have 40 students in a class is really detrimental to their ability to get the the face-to-face attention and support and individualized help that they need.”
Holt says maintaining CUSD’s reputation for excellence is his top priority.
“Whoever steps into that seat needs to be creative on maintaining the standards and values, but also being flexible and nimble enough to be able to evolve and address the needs of our changing demographics, address the changing needs of our teachers, our educators and also the community as a whole,” Holt said.
Re-opening schools for in-person instruction is Awtrey’s top priority.
“We want to make it optional because we don’t want to force anybody to come back if they’re not safe or parents don’t feel safe or teachers don’t feel they’re safe. When we do get the COVID in control here in Fresno County, our first priority is getting students back in the classroom,” Awtrey said.
Both Awtrey and Elbaz say they will wait for health officials to give Clovis Unified the all clear to return.
Holt thinks that not all factors were considered when in-person instruction was halted. He cited a recent study of increased youth suicide attempts in Fresno County.
“There’s also a lot of risks with schools being closed. I think ultimately the way that it should be handled moving forward is that the decision should lie in the hands of the parents,” Holt said.
When schools reopen, Holt says he’d call for safety measures and consideration for hybrid schedules, where not all students are in class at once.
Area 7: Fogg Proud of Transparency
Because no challenger emerged, Fogg’s name will not be on the ballot as he runs for a second term.
He says his top accomplishment in his first four years is making the district more transparent. Meetings are now recorded on video.
“I think that we are much more open. If you really want to know what’s going on, it’s easy to find out now. And it wasn’t that way four years ago, in my opinion,” Fogg said.
Improving race relations in his next term is one of his top priorities.
“I’ve seen a lot more diversity in Clovis Unified since I’ve been here. I’ve seen a lot more acceptance of everyone who may not be the mainstream of what Clovis has always been. And I think it’s a great thing,” Fogg said.
He has noticed improvements, despite complaints from the likes of the ACLU.
“It’s disappointing that recently many feel like we haven’t made progress,” Fogg said. “The administration and especially the board are very anxious to (reach out). So if they don’t feel they’re reaching the right people then I don’t think they’re trying because we really want to reach out to everyone.”
Most Candidates Support Measure A
All but one candidate supports Measure A, the $335 million school bond measure on the ballot. The measure would help pay for construction of new schools and modernize current facilities to keep up with growing enrollment.
The bond would levy a property tax of six cents for every $100 of assessed home value. For example, the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would pay $60 per year in property taxes under Measure A. The new measure would replace a property tax that is coming off the books, taxed at the same rate.
Voters rejected a similar bond in March.
Awtrey said there are consequences for not passing Measure A.
“There is going to be major boundary changes if we don’t get the bond passed. And also the possibilities of year round and or double session— a lot of people think this is a scare tactic, but they are options that we’re going to have to look at as a district in the coming years if this doesn’t happen,” Awtrey said.
It’s a sentiment shared by nearly every candidate.
Trumble, running in Area 2, plans to vote against Measure A.
“Enough is enough. We keep taking out these bonds and taking out these bonds and taking out these bonds. But what are we seeing here?” Trumble said.
Trumble wants to examine current spending to allocate to areas that need it the most. He says school building should use state or federal funds.
Clovis Unified and Race: More Communication Needed
Critics say Clovis Unified has had a negative relationship with students of color. Earlier this month, the ACLU filed a complaint claiming a “racially hostile environment.”
Several candidates, like Awtrey, think improved communication is the answer.
Elbaz, running in Area 4, wants an increase in diversity.
“I think it’s important that we have some representation of the schools, be it as teachers, be it as administrators who mirror our students … because that’ll set a wonderful example for them and be inclusive,” Elbaz said.
Holt said he’s discussed the issue with other parents.
“Is Clovis Unified a racist school district? No. I think there is certainly some areas where they can improve,” Holt said. “One of the things that I’ve been vocal about is improving cultural competencies and starting those at a younger age and and reinforcing that so that everyone can have a good understanding of different ethnicities and different biases.”
Casado, of Mexican heritage, says he’s felt the sting of racism in the past.
“If people think that racism doesn’t exist in Clovis, they’re living in a bubble. It does. It’s not a racist community, but racism exists and it happens,” Casado said.
Casado calls for a commitment to the community and of all races. He cites the formation in 2017 of the Intercultural Diversity Advisory Council on every campus as a step in the right direction.
DeFrank would rely on IDAC to take the next step.
Moore, who is Black, said her daughter went through some hurtful incidents when attending high school.
“I wish she hadn’t experienced some of the things that she did,” Moore said.
She doesn’t want any racial incident to happen again.
“There needs to be a known zero tolerance for that type of thing, because if that’s in place, it will it will deter students from doing that type of stuff,” Moore said.
Should School Names Change?
With the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, many monuments have been removed and buildings or other markers have been renamed upon examination of the honoree’s past.
Recently, research from the Fresno Bee discovered that John Euless, for whom the baseball stadium at Fresno City College is named, had ties to the KKK. School officials have said they will be removing Euless’ name from the facility.
Several Clovis Unified schools are named in honor of individuals including educators, business people, and politicians.
Would Clovis Unified candidates consider a change if information later surfaced raising questions about the character of a person for whom a school is named?
DeFrank said if the issue was a comment that hasn’t aged well, then probably not. If a more serious charge arose, he would consider it.
“There are some extreme things that we can learn about somewhere where you need to say we may need to make a change here because what was done is so significant and we don’t want to honor that person in light of what we now know about them,” DeFrank said.
Trumble says it depends on the offense. Ties to the KKK would be a good reason for a change.
Awtrey said it would need thorough examination.
“We would have to take a hard look at what what the allegations are. I can’t imagine a major thing would slip by at this point that we haven’t heard it,” Awtrey said.
Elbaz would support name changes.
“If we have a large part of our community that feels that they have been discriminated against and put down by someone who we’ve named a building after — we didn’t know about it until later — we have to be willing to do what’s right now for our community. And if that means changing a name, then I think that’s the right thing to do,” Elbaz said.
Holt said if its a serious charge, it is something to consider, but he would hesitate.
“We’ve certainly all made our mistakes at one point or another. But to judge someone based on what they did 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, in my opinion, is not appropriate,” Holt said.
Casado would “do my due diligence” to decide what to do.
Moore would use the standard of whether the school naming would happen if the facts were known at the time.
“We wouldn’t want to send the message that said behaviors are honorable. I am in favor of changing the name of a building or a school if someone later turns out to not be a good person,” Moore said.
Fogg wonders how naming a school or building could happen under such scrutiny.
“If we’re going to change it, then we’ll probably change it to someone who was perfect, which I don’t know if there was very many perfect people in this world,” Fogg said.
If changing the name improved the community, Fogg would consider it. If it divides, he said probably not.
Election Method Under Scrutiny
The method which Clovis Unified uses to elect its board members has come under scrutiny.
Chris Milton, a businessman and candidate in a State Center Community College District trustee race, has publicly called for change, saying CUSD is breaking the law.
According to the latest figures from the Fresno County clerk, 136,000 registered voters live in the Clovis Unified School District. Voters are not evenly distributed per trustee area, ranging from 16,000 to 24,000.
State law mandates a specific procedure for changing trustee election structures, which has been slowed down because of the pandemic.
Casado said the district was in the process of making the change before the pandemic.
“This may be the last election we have like this,” Casado said.
Most candidates acknowledge a change is likely, but not all think it is a good idea.
Fogg is concerned that restricting voting to trustee areas could cause tension on the board.
“I think that divides the school district. I think that divides the community,” Fogg said. “I would be heartbroken if we would go to a system where we’re fighting for each of our own schools rather than the district in total.”
Holt likes things as is.
“I like the setup right now again, and I think the biggest advantage is a community spirit. But at some point the school district will have to change,” Holt said.
Awtrey would support a change “as long as we can do it equitably … I don’t want to gerrymander the district.”
Elbaz said it would make it easier to campaign in just one area instead of district-wide.
“Having the at-large system of elections is incredibly expensive … what that could end up doing is stopping people who would be incredibly well qualified and would make wonderful additions to the board not being able to get in front of as many people as they need to,” Elbaz said.
Moore supported a change as well.
DeFrank is hesitant to make a move.
“I almost feel like if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” DeFrank said. He added he would be open to a change.
Trumble calls for change in the opposite direction — that board members should not be restricted by residency and all should be elected at-large.