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Visalia Unified board member Patricia Griswold, a special education teacher for 19 years, dies at the age of 58

Visalia Unified board member Patricia Griswold, a special education teacher for 19 years, dies at the age of 58

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – The Tulare County education community mourned the loss of long-time educator and recent Visalia Unified School Board member Patricia Griswold last week.

Visalia Unified School District administration announced that Griswold, 58, had passed on March 29, following a cancer diagnosis. The family informed the district of Mrs. Griswold’s passing early that morning. Griswold, a special education teacher with the Tulare County Office of Education (TCOE), was elected in November 2016 to represent Area 5 of the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) Board Trustees for Area 5 in November 2016.

“She had a passion for education and brought great value and dedication to the district and the Visalia community, and she will be greatly missed,” said Dr. Tamara Ravalín, assistant superintendent for human resources and development. “We extend our deepest condolences to Patricia’s family and friends.”

Patricia was born Feb. 1, 1960 in Fort Benning, Ga. to Kevin and Patricia S. McKay. She grew up in West Germany, Williamsburg, Baton Rouge, Memphis, and Pensacola, Florida. In her teens, she found her first job as a motel maid. After that experience, she never failed to leave a tip. In her twenties and thirties, she lived in New York City and Rochester, New York, where her son, Jonathan Biltucci, and daughter, Crysti Biltucci, were born in 1986 and 1988. She worked as a waitress for several years before returning to Pensacola.

In 1996, she graduated from the University of West Florida with a bachelor’s degree in special education and was employed teaching children with autism. In 1998, she married Lewis Griswold and bravely moved to Visalia with her pre-teen children. In 1999, her youngest daughter, Natalie Griswold, was born.

For 19 years until her death, Patricia worked as a special education teacher at the Tulare County Office of Education. She was assigned to county classrooms in Woodlake, Exeter, Visalia and Tulare, teaching children with moderate to severe special needs. For many, she was known as “Teacher Trish.”

“For over 18 years, Trish dedicated herself to enriching the lives of every student and family that walked through her classroom door,” said Jim Vidak, Tulare County superintendent of schools. She inspired, gave hope and taught her students to believe in themselves.  At the end of every day, she made sure each student left with a smile on their face showing that they had accomplished something great.”

In 2009, she earned her master’s degree in special education from Fresno Pacific University, where she later taught night classes. In recognition of her skills in the classroom, the Office of Education awarded her the 2017 Brent Rast Award for Excellence in Special Education.

Co-workers described Griswold as a passionate advocate for special education students who inspired others to find ways to give those students more opportunities for broader educational experiences.

Kimberly Leom worked with Griswold for 10 years as principal of Conyer Elementary School. She said Griswold had the fearlessness of a typical New Yorker combined with a rare respect for coworkers and all students, regardless of their disabilities or special needs. Her tireless fight for special needs students changed the entire culture of the school.

“She was always helping other people,” Leom said. “She was an excellent teacher, a gifted mentor to other teachers and helped her principal and staff understand how to interact with and serve special needs students and to integrate them into the general student population.”

The lessons Leom learned from Griswold are now being shared at Golden Oak Elementary, where Leom is now serving as principal. Leom said she was chosen for the site because of the culture she and Griswold helped create at Conyer.

“Her work impacted so many and will continue to help people within her community,” Leom said.

Griswold’s respect among parents and educators helped her garner more than half of the vote in a three-way race for the Area 5 seat on the VUSD school board in November 2016. Griswold had a strong background in negotiations after serving as the Grievances and Bargaining chairs to the Tulare County Board of Education. She also had her pulse on Tulare County thanks to her husband, Fresno Bee South Valley reporter Lewis Griswold. All three of her children have graduated from Visalia Unified.

She campaigned on improving VUSD’s art programs as a way to narrow the achievement gap for at-risk youth.

VUSD Superintendent Dr. Todd Oto said Griswold had recently informed the district that she was ill but that she was committed to serving out her term on the school board and had served in her capacity as a board member up until the day of her passing. He noted that Griswold had the respect of her fellow board members who after just one year on the board named her as the Board Clerk, a position rarely held by first-term board members.

“There was no indication that she would be gone so suddenly,” Oto said. “We are dealing with the shock of the news.”

Oto said the district is waiting on a ruling from the Tulare County Elections Office on how they should proceed with the vacant seat on the board. Less than a year into her first term, Oto said Griswold’s seat may have to be filled by special election instead of appointing someone to serve out the remainder of her term through 2020.

Her professional successes did not define her, at least not in her view. She firmly believed her most important accomplishments in life were raising her children and providing a loving home environment. As friends can attest, Griswold was very proud of her children.
She is survived by her husband Lewis, and her children: Jonathan Biltucci and his wife Marissa, of San Diego; Crysti Unkrich and her husband Aaron, of Buffalo, N.Y.; and Natalie Griswold, a student at Fresno State. She is also survived by her mother, Patricia McKay, sister Mary Jo McKay, and nieces Stephanie and Alexandra Thake, all of East Northport, N.Y.

A Celebration of Life service will take place at Christ Lutheran Church, 3830 W. Tulare Avenue on Wednesday, April 4 at 6 p.m. All are welcome. To send flowers or a memorial gift to the family of Patricia McKay Griswold please visit www.salserandillard.com.

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