Students, teachers, parents say board made mistake ousting Dr. Todd Oto
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Dr. Todd Oto will finish out his 32-year career with the Visalia Unified School District this June after being unceremoniously dismissed by the school board last week.
At its May 7 meeting, the trustees voted 5-2 to accept a “resignation agreement” with the superintendent following closed session. The decision was booed by students, teachers, parents, and even former administrators who overwhelmingly came to support Oto after hearing through social media that he may be voted out by the board at the meeting.
“I appreciate the support here tonight,” Oto said. “This is a tough night for everyone here and I’m sure for you folks as well. I wish to the thank the board for the opportunity to be superintendent of the Visalia Unified School District.”
Tanya Perez, a teacher at El Diamante High School, said school districts need stable leadership to provide a clear path forward, but since the news of Oto’s evaluation was posted to Facebook the atmosphere has been clouded by insecurity. She said Oto ran the district with a clear motto that through collaboration, things can continue to improve. She said she and others in attendance saw those same traits when they elected people to the school board.
“We advocated strongly for you because we felt you valued our voice as educators,” Perez said. “We had a strong sense you were leaders who wanted to hear from us as stakeholders. Today it doesn’t feel that way. Today, you have created great unease among staff at school sites.”
Audra Naylor, the daughter-in-law of board member Joy Naylor, one of the two dissenting votes in Oto’s dismissal, is student activity coordinator at Mt. Whitney High School. She led a group of Mt. Whitney students and teachers who held signs saying “We Support Dr. Oto.” She said Oto has been one of the biggest advocates for ASB and other activities that put students at the forefront of school activities, both on campus and in the community.
“Dr. Oto is for inclusivity and equality. I believe many in this room could learn from his example,” she said. “As elected officials who serve their constituents, I believe you should listen to what people are saying and support Dr. Oto.”
Chloe Brooks was one of those involved students who came to Oto’s defense. A senior at Mt. Whitney High School, Brooks has served as an ASB officer for the last three years and was recognized for her service as a student representative on the board earlier in the meeting. She said Oto was one of the few people she knew in the district officer and at the school board meetings because he is very involved in each of the campuses and spends a lot of time visiting school sites.
“He was nothing but respectful and welcoming to me,” she said. “He was one of the only members [of district administration] who greeted me and made sure I was prepared for these meetings,” she said. “I am grateful for Dr. Oto and the tools he has given me to succeed in my life. He is a prime example of a professional member who has the students best interest at heart.”
Terry Peterson chastised the board for holding a special meeting and making this kind of decision during state testing. She said instead of getting her students some time to study and in bed on time, they were at a board meeting focusing on upheaval in the district.
“I should be home getting my students ready for the next day,” Peterson said. “I want to go home and tell my daughter her superintendent will be the super next year.”
The room choked up when May Stevens offered a tearful plea for Oto to continue as superintendent. Long before she became a teacher, Stevens was the mother of a 16-year-old daughter who committed suicide during Oto’s tenure as principal.
“He calmly and with tremendous professionalism and compassion led his devastated staff, and devastated student body, through an unspeakable tragedy,” she said.
Now in her fourth year as a high school teacher in the district, Stevens said Oto continues to advocate for students and staff, putting their needs before his and the district’s. “Visalia Unified needs Dr. Oto’s continued principled and calm leadership as our superintendent,” she concluded.
Jerry Perez, who teaches at El Diamante High School, said he was a freshman at Redwood when Oto was still a teacher. He said Oto was always inclusive as a teacher, a skill he continued to develop in the district office. And while he did not always agree with the superintendent, Perez said he always felt that Oto’s heart was in the right place.
“I know firmly that Dr. Oto is the smartest person in this room and yet, he takes the time to hear from others. I’d like to think the board members would give us all the opportunity to voice our opinions on issues such as the superintendent. If an issue of this magnitude is made, than every one should have the opportunity to speak to every board member about this.”
Not everyone was there to speak in support of Oto. Marie Gonzalez, a teacher at Valley Oak Middle School, said she was upset with the lack of leadership at her site. She said the school was left without a principal at the beginning of this year, a year that has been mired by student discipline issues on campus and their last assistant principal was involuntarily transferred to another site. She said teachers began giving up time before school, during lunch, and after school to tackle issues that should have been handled by administrators.
“There was a lack of support from district staff and administration,” Gonzalez said. “I choose to stand up and speak up for myself, peers and my school.”
A 2-year Toll
After closed session, the board emerged to announce the shockingly lopsided 5-2 vote to end Oto’s tenure as superintendent. Board President John Crabtree announced the vote in favor of dismissal including himself, as well as trustees Juan Guerrero, Niesen Foster, Bill Fulmer, Walta Gamoian. “The Board thanks and commends Dr. Oto for his long service to the district and the students of Visalia and wishes him the best in his future endeavors,” Crabtree said.
Crabtree said the resignation agreement was drafted by the board and presented to Oto in closed session before he and Oto signed the document. He confirmed that Oto did not provide the board with a letter of resignation.
Oto had been under intense scrutiny for the last year and a half, following an incident involving a Redwood student who wore a sweatshirt with the Confederate flag. Last October, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a discrimination complaint against the district with the Department of Education on behalf of a group of black students who claim the district ignored bigotry and racial hostility on its campuses. The community was somewhat divided over the need for Measure A, a $105 million school bond that narrowly passed in November. For the last two years, teachers at several school sites have voiced their opposition to the district’s Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) system to manage student behaviors in the classroom. Teachers have complained that the system did not offer enough consequences for students who were unruly in the classroom and on campus, and in some instances where they threatened the safety of teachers and other students. In January, the California Department of Education released its list of lowest performing schools in the state which included seven from Visalia Unified. Just last month, Oto admitted that a clerical error in the district office had placed three of Visalia’s high schools among the Valley’s lowest for qualifying graduates for freshman admission to the University of California or California State University systems.
Crabtree would not comment on the reasons for Oto’s dismissal, but did say the district office was already getting a handle on many of the issues cited above.
“Sometimes things need to change,” Crabtree said. “We liked him as a board and [Dr. Oto] did a lot of good things. He was well liked in the district but we felt like we needed a new direction.”
Lucia Vazquez, who voted against Oto’s dismissal, said she wanted her vote to show the audience that the board was listening to their comments on an important issue.
“I did not agree with the rest of the board and I wanted to show my support for Dr. Oto and the 32 years has been in the district,” she said. “Now we have to find a way to move forward.”
A 32-year Career
As part of the deal approved by the board, Oto agreed to continue serving the District in an advisory role until June 11, 2019, his final day of service. Oto has spent his entire career with VUSD beginning as a teacher, principal, co-administrator, assistant principal and as superintendent since 2015.
“I’ve had an incredible career here within this organization,” Oto said following the board’s announcement of the vote. “Across the 32 years that I have worked for Visalia Unified, I’ve had the joy of being a teacher, pleasure of being a principal, and the honor of being the superintendent.”
Under Oto’s leadership, VUSD has developed a strong foundation for teaching and learning. Dr. Oto also led the district to a stronger career technical education program and successfully passed Measure A, which will bring $105,000,000 in school modernization projects and a fifth high school to Visalia.
“Throughout my career, I’ve worked with some of most committed professionals in our field,” Oto said. “VUSD is an organization that has long served students well. Although I am sad to be leaving the district that I have called home for my entire career, I know that I will leave behind an organization ready for future challenges and able to meet the needs of the children of Visalia.”
Oto shook each of the board member’s hands after the announcement.
A First-year Fill-In
The agreement immediately initiated the process to hire a superintendent for the 2019-20 school year and announced the board’s intention to appoint Dr. Tamara Ravlin as acting superintendent at its May 14, which happened after press time.
Ravalín currently serves as the assistant superintendent of Human Resources Development for the District. She has served in public education for over 35 years including as assistant superintendent of Educational Services for the Kings County Office of Education and Dean of Student Services for the College of the Sequoias. Ravalín earned a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration from the University of the Pacific. She also holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Arts and Technology. Dr. Ravalín holds an Administrative Services Credential, a Multiple Subjects Teaching Credential, and Single Subject Teaching Credentials in Industrial and Technology Education and Home Economics with supplemental authorizations in Mathematics, Computers, and Art.
“Maybe she would like to stick around and do the job,” Crabtree said in an interview after the meeting. “Getting people to come to Visalia is not the easiest thing to do.”
As the trustees decide how to move forward in its search for a new superintendent, Crabtree said they are committed to working with faculty, staff and all constituents to continue moving forward in a positive direction. He said Ravalín and Oto will continue to work closely together to ensure the transition in leadership is smooth and focused on the future.