Trustee Tony Vang's chair was noticeably empty at the Fresno Unified School Board meeting in late August, and his absence generated a few harsh comments from the public.
For a man who has missed eight school board meetings in three years, Vang's recent string of three absences was jarring -- especially since Vang faced allegations that he hasn't always lived in his McLane High trustee district.
But the board continued with business as usual and didn't acknowledge or explain Vang's absence -- its regular practice anytime a trustee fails to show for a meeting. Over the past two decades, the Fresno Unified School Board never has followed its policy that requires board approval before an absent trustee can be paid.
Each trustee has missed at least a few meetings over the past three years. Although the board took no action to approve absences, Fresno Unified paid the trustees their full $1,443 monthly stipend.
The district's practice also deviates from California education code and guidelines laid out by the California School Board Association. Those rules say board members who do not attend all meetings may get only a portion of their pay, and may be paid for missed meetings after the board decides their absence was due to illness, jury duty or some extreme hardship.
Fresno Unified officials said they give leeway for the occasional absence because trustees have many responsibilities beyond board meetings, such as school events and school-related groups and committees.
"Due to the volume and variety of services the Trustees provide monthly, it has been Fresno Unified's practice to provide the full monthly compensation to all members, notwithstanding occasional absences," district spokeswoman Susan Bedi said in a statement.
Bedi said that trustees routinely notify the board president or staff if they can't attend a meeting.
Deputy Superintendent Ruth Quinto said the district hasn't had to set a limit on absences because there never has been a problem with meeting attendance.
Board President Valerie Davis said she doesn't see a need to dock pay for missed meetings.
"All of us do what we can, and what we're interested in, and I think everyone is pretty forthcoming in attending all of the meetings we are available to," Davis said. "If we're not there, it's probably a good reason."
Vang missed the Aug. 22 meeting because he had the flu. But he missed a meeting in June -- when Davis was elected to replace him as president -- saying he didn't want to be a distraction from the board's work amid a public firestorm over questions about his residency.
He also missed a meeting in May because he was on vacation. The explanations were provided by his Sacramento-based spokesman, William Hodges, who has fielded questions for Vang since his residency issues surfaced.
Trustee Carol Mills, who has missed four special meetings in three years, said the board would benefit from formal guidelines. While Mills said the board majority has a solid attendance record, she recently has noticed some attendance issues. Some trustees have skipped meetings for personal convenience, she said, and trustees Michelle Asadoorian and Larry Moore walked out of a June meeting after they were silenced when they tried to address Vang's residency controversy.
"I do not believe vacations, a boycott, or mere convenience are justifiable reasons for missing a meeting," Mills said.
Most trustees agree that meeting attendance typically is good. Since August 2009, Cal Johnson and Janet Ryan have each missed two meetings, and Asadoorian has missed four, according to minutes from special and regular board meetings.
The Bee reviewed attendance records for 84 meetings, including the twice-monthly regular board meetings that are scheduled months in advance, and special board meetings that often are scheduled a week or so in advance. Trustees are expected to attend both.
And on a divided board like Fresno Unified, where a single vote can swing a decision, one trustee absence can make a difference.
Moore -- who has the most absences, with nine in three years -- said the board should follow education code and deduct pay from trustees who miss meetings without legitimate excuses.
"The public has a right to expect that the board follows their own policies," he said.
Fresno's ignored policy isn't unique. Clovis Unified School District also overlooks the occasional trustee absence, said district spokeswoman Kelly Avants. Board members make about $750 monthly, and get full payment even when they have an absence or two.
"It's rare for them to miss a meeting," Avants said.
She said if attendance becomes a problem, the district would consider changing its practice.
In Long Beach Unified School District, which often is compared to Fresno Unified in size and diversity, trustees get their $1,500 monthly stipend only if they attend all board meetings -- or if the board approves their absence. The two acceptable excuses for missing a meeting are district business or illness, said district spokesman Chris Eftychiou. He said one former trustee was docked pay because he missed too many meetings and didn't give an explanation.
"It's really a judgment call by the other board members," said Eftychiou, and not a decision by the district administration or superintendent.
On Thursday, a few days after The Bee submitted questions to the district about attendance policies, Superintendent Michael Hanson sent an email reminding trustees that they are expected to attend all meetings and workshops, and that state law allows board members with perfect attendance to earn up to $1,500 each month. The district's practice has been to pay trustees their full salary and overlook absences, Hanson wrote.
But he asked the board to review the policy and decide whether to clarify how and when trustees should be paid.
Asadoorian said the board needs to change the policy if it doesn't want to follow it, but it can't pick and choose which rules to govern by.
"It's very simple," she said. "If this is what the policy says, then we follow it."
Fresno Unified School District trustees are paid a $1,443 monthly stipend, even when they miss board meetings for reasons other than illness or extreme hardship. Out of 84 regular and special board meetings since August 2009, trustees totaled 32 absences:
Larry Moore, 9
Tony Vang, 8
Michelle Asadoorian, 4
Carol Mills, 4
Valerie Davis, 3
Cal Johnson, 2
Janet Ryan, 2
Source: Fresno Unified meeting minutes
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @heathersomervil on Twitter.