Clovis Unified school board elections are typically uneventful since incumbents usually are unopposed, but this year is different.
Following several controversial board decisions – involving a strict dress code and transgender bathroom policies – there have been calls for a change in leadership, leading to an influx of first-time candidates. The results of the November election could bring four new faces to the seven-member board, which oversees one of California’s highest-achieving districts.
Ginny Hovsepian – who was elected in 1991 – is running for re-election, along with Brian Heryford, who was elected in 1996. School board president Chris Casado, who was elected in 2008, is also seeking another term. Trustee Richard Lake is retiring after serving 20 years on the board.
School board terms are for four years.
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At the heart of this election is a fight for “the Clovis way of life” – the city’s slogan that’s a nod to its farming roots and simpler times. But the motto has been criticized by some for being discriminatory and has gotten the school board into trouble.
Earlier this year, the board made national headlines for refusing to drop a dress code that banned boys from wearing long hair and earrings despite concerns that the policy broke laws protecting gender expression. (In a revote, the board later adopted a gender-neutral policy.)
Now, the district is embroiled in debates about the right of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.
People are tired of incumbents.
Josh Fulfer, Stop the Madness
The incumbents have voiced that their personal beliefs don’t match state and federal directives, but that they have to follow the law. While the board has been criticized by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union for its decisions, some say trustees aren’t doing enough to stand up for “the Clovis way of life.”
Stop the Madness, a parents group, has urged the school board to fight laws ranging from the Common Core standards to policies designed to protect LGBTQ student rights. Parents in the group have even offered to bankroll any potential litigation that could come from such opposition. The conservative group is endorsing newcomers Jacob Belemjian, Matt Castiglione, Steven Fogg and Sandy Torosian.
Citizens United for Excellence in Education seemingly formed in response to Stop the Madness. The group aims to keep Hovsepian, Casado, Heryford and former school board member Scott Troescher – who is running for Lake’s spot – with the slogan: “Keep Clovis schools great.”
Josh Fulfer, leader of Stop the Madness, says the current board has become “stagnate.” He takes issue with the fact that no board members have children currently enrolled in the district, and he questions their involvement.
“Since they’ve been there so long, it’s like it’s not even a job for them anymore. Every meeting is like, ‘OK let’s get this over with and move on,’ ” Fulfer said. “It’s hard to get an incumbent out, especially here, but there’s also an advantage: The temperature is changing. People are tired of incumbents when it comes to any level of government.”
Don’t ask me to apologize for being experienced.
Clovis Unified incumbent Ginny Hovsepian
Trustee Area 2
Ginny Hovsepian: Hovsepian has served on the Clovis Unified school board for 25 years, just like her father, her grandfather and her great-grandfather. She does not perceive her long stint on the board as a negative, as do some of her opponents.
“Don’t ask me to apologize for being experienced,” she said. “The school district is a complicated machine. I have to run on my record, and I’m proud of my record. We need experienced board members.”
Hovsepian says the boost in interest in the board is a response to “outside cultural pressures” because some school mandates have not been well received in conservative Clovis. But Stop the Madness is extreme, she said.
“Stop the Madness wants us to break the laws. I actually share most of the same values as them – I’m a conservative person. But if you don’t like the law, you go to Sacramento and change it. You don’t break it.”
Hovsepian turned heads at a public meeting in January regarding the dress code when she said: “Just because it’s a law doesn’t mean we need to put up with it.”
Hovsepian says if elected this time around, she’ll push for more career-technical and vocational programs.
Isabel Machado: Newcomer Isabel Machado stands out from the rest. The immigration lawyer has been the only candidate to challenge “the Clovis way” and has publicly shamed the current board for passing policies that she says are prejudicial.
“It’s not OK for them to say you have to look this way or that way. It’s not OK for somebody to go up to that podium (at school board meetings) and say they’re a Christian so they can’t support the transgender community. It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “We are all human beings, period. When God created us, he didn’t create us to be separate. We’re not here to judge each other; we’re here to work and live together and do the best we can as a community.”
Machado, who has a 5-year-old who will attend the district, said the board needs parent representatives, and that she’ll fight to better allocate the district’s funding, emphasizing education over sports programs. She says the district asks for too much money from parents for extracurriculars.
“There really are a lot more open-minded people in Clovis than it may seem that are not as ultra-conservative as other people think Clovis is,” Machado said. “Clovis is becoming younger, and people’s ideals and points of view about certain social issues are changing. I took a look at the seven board members, and I felt they were not representative of the community. They don’t appear to me to be people with a present vested interest, but they’ve been running unopposed for all these years.”
Sandy Torosian: Torosian is a retired instructional aide who worked in the district for more than 20 years. Her two children are Clovis West High graduates.
Torosian is a leader of U.S. Parents Involved in Education – a national nonprofit dedicated to “eradicating federal intrusion” in schools.
Her primary platform is increasing the district’s local control, and she says if elected, she would do what it takes to fight policies that “run contrary to our values” – even if it means suing the state of California.
“I would like to see Clovis Unified and all those districts that have the same values come together. If we joined forces and sued the state of California together, these policies wouldn’t have such a huge impact,” she said. “It’s against the law what Governor Brown is doing.”
Torosian, who identifies as a “committed conservative,” disagrees with Brown’s school bathroom law passed in 2013, saying, “you use the bathroom with the genitals you were assigned.” She has also been a big opponent of the Common Core standards.
It looks like this is a takeover attempt to steer the district in a different direction.
Clovis Unified candidate Scott Troescher
Trustee Area Four
Jacob Belemjian: Belemjian, owner of the Firing Line gun range and a Clovis Unified parent, says he’s running because the current trustees are out of touch.
“We need change. Competition is what Clovis Unified is built upon. It’s that competitive spirit that brings out the best in people so that they look for answers we wouldn’t normally see,” he said. “When you have a board that’s served as long as this one has and they run unopposed, they have no incentive. They get complacent.”
Belemjian spoke out against the district’s accommodations for transgender students, comparing it to the Americans with Disabilities Act – which he also disagrees with. His son has cerebral palsy.
“As a business owner and a parent I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that the government is forcing everyone to become ADA compliant. I think it’s stupid because this is supposed to be a free country, and I can take my son where I want, and if it’s not conducive to take him, then guess what happens? I don’t go there, and they don’t get my money,” he said. “It’s patently unfair to the masses to discriminate against them so that we can honor the rights of others.”
Belemjian says “there’s an assault” on Clovis’ morals from the state and federal government.
“We are living, especially here in California, in very complicated times,” he sad. “Clovis is a different place. We’re stuck in a bit of a time warp, and it’s part of what makes Clovis what it is. People want what is here.”
Brian Heryford: Heryford, who owns an insurance agency, has served on the school board for 20 years. He says he wants to work on helping parents understand policies and how they’re made. He is a supporter of the often misunderstood Common Core standards, pointing out that at Clovis North High School this year, three students graduated with perfect ACT scores.
“People want our district to drop Common Core. What people don’t realize is that it’s the state standard. So if the state wants to ban it, we could ban it, but we get funding from the state,” he said.
Unlike several of his fellow trustees, Heryford voted for the proposed dress code the first time around and pushed the importance of the board upholding state laws.
“We’re ready for this,” he said then. “It’s time for a change.”
Clovis is becoming younger, and people’s ideals and points of view about certain social issues are changing.
Clovis Unified candidate Isabel Machado
Trustee Area Five
Steven Fogg: Fogg, an ophthalmologist and Clovis Unified parent, is promising to “preserve the heart and soul of our community.”
Fogg says he wants to keep the district’s “high standards” while ensuring inclusion of all students. According to Fogg, he’s uniquely qualified to communicate with concerned parents – something he says the board is struggling with now.
“I’m a physician. All day long, people come to me with their problems, and my job is to figure out what’s going on and to solve it. That’s what I’m trying to do here,” he said. “Parents are feeling like they aren’t being heard. I’m someone whose willing to come in, look at the facts and understand where everyone’s coming from.”
Fogg said opposing sides “are not listening to each other. I am going to be that school board member that is the best listener to the parents, administration and needs of the community.”
Scott Troescher: Troescher, who works for the city of Clovis, served on the school board from 2008-12 and says he has unfinished business. He lost his seat to Lake in the 2012 election and now wants to do his part to “keep the district great.” He says that’s best done by listening closely to parents but always upholding the law.
“It’s always a balancing act because of our somewhat conservative community. But there are people of all spectrums and beliefs, and the district always does its best to try to make sure they find middle ground where everybody is comfortable. You have to make every effort to make sure all children are comfortable and safe at school.”
Troescher is calling for smaller class sizes and for more programs like CART so that students who don’t plan to go to college can be successful. The father of a daughter who attended Clovis High, he recognizes the unique election he’s a part of.
“It looks like this is a takeover attempt to steer the district in a different direction,” he said. “This is a critical election.”
We’re not used to this.
Clovis Unified incumbent Chris Casado
Trustee Area Seven
Chris Casado: Casado, current school board president, has been on the board for eight years and says this campaign season has some parents concerned. He calls some of the critics calling for change “one-agenda-item champions” who don’t understand how the board works.
“What I hear from the community is outrage, mostly because of the falsehoods that (Stop the Madness) is spreading. People are offended,” he said. “I hear, ‘Why are people attacking the district? We’re a place that people look up to. We’re a destination district. But we’re hearing negatives.’ ”
Casado said that, if re-elected, he will work to maintain Clovis Unified’s values.
“We’re working hard to keep it unique and special. It’s a challenge with all the mandates that come out of Sacramento and Washington,” he said. “We can’t work above the law, but it doesn’t mean we stop fighting.”
About half of the teachers hired in the past year transferred from surrounding districts, according to Casado, and he said he won’t let the opposition bring the district’s reputation down.
“We can have opponents and adversaries, but we don’t have to have enemies,” he said. “We’re not used to this.”
Matt Castiglione: Castiglione is the owner of a real estate company and is active in the People’s Church in Fresno. A Clovis High graduate, he recently brought his Bible to the podium at a school board meeting and quoted from it to condemn the district’s transgender bathroom policy.
“I was raised on principles and values that I feel are no longer. I was raised on the Bible,” said Castiglione, who has five children in the district. “I just feel like this generation feels like things should be handed to them on a silver platter now. It’s all about equality. We keep saying ‘it’s OK’ to be a certain way, and we give in a little and a little bit more, and pretty soon we’ve allowed all this stuff. It just keeps progressively getting worse.”
Like Torosian, he says if elected, he would join with like-minded districts to fight state mandates some Clovis parents may not agree with.
Castiglione makes his concerns about the current board clear: “I want to remove one of them or as many as we can,” he said. “Nothing ever gets done. Parents’ suggestions just seem to fall on deaf ears.”
Keys to Nov. 8 general election
Last day to register: Monday, Oct. 24
Vote by mail: Period to vote opens Monday, Oct. 10
Last day to request vote-by-mail ballot: Tuesday, Nov. 1