His name may not be on November's ballot, but the outcome of three trustee races could affect Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson's job security -- and shift the balance of power on the school board.
Two of three seats on the ballot are held by incumbents Carol Mills and Janet Ryan, who are running for re-election and are vocal Hanson supporters. The third seat became open when Larry Moore, a former teachers union president who is a Hanson critic, decided not to seek a second term.
The Fresno Teachers Association, which has clashed with Hanson over class sizes and other issues and gave him a vote of no confidence last year, is backing a candidate in each race. None are incumbents.
"The incumbents that are running are rubber stamps of Mr. Hanson, and I think that should be a major issue for the voters," Moore said.
The newly elected trustees will join board President Valerie Davis and trustee Cal Johnson, who have been supportive of Hanson, and trustee Michelle Asadoorian, who has had run-ins with the superintendent. In addition, the board will appoint a trustee to replace Tony Vang, a Hanson supporter who resigned in September after months of public scrutiny over his time living outside the school district while he was a trustee.
The candidates all voice similar concern about issues such as graduation rates, academic performance and dropout rates, so a candidate's opinion of Hanson could be what sets him or her apart.
The superintendent could be a galvanizing issue, said Jeff Cummins, associate professor of political science at Fresno State.
Clearly something has made a difference, since the slate of candidates is one of the largest in recent memory. In the past three elections, only two trustee races had more than two candidates. This year, there are 11 total candidates: five in Hoover High's Area 6, three for Fresno High's Area 5 and three in Roosevelt High's Area 2 to replace Moore.
Incumbents typically have an edge when there are a lot of candidates, but the superintendent issue could help challengers gain visibility, Cummins said.
"Voters tend to have fairly strong feelings about local schools and would want to weigh in on certain candidates," he said.
Hanson said he concentrates on the education of the district's 72,000 students and does not see himself as an issue in the board races. "I'm the superintendent of schools, and these are school board races for the trustees that form the governance board of the school district," he said.
The district has a lot of work to do to continue improving academically even as financial resources continue to shrink, he said. Even in the best of times, Hanson said, it's "impossible to make everyone happy, so we stay focused on what is best for our students."
The Area 5 race has created unusual political partnerships, with staunch Republican Michael Der Manouel Jr. backing Mills, a Democrat, and the Fresno teachers union throwing its support to challenger Andrew Doris, a conservative Republican. Those endorsements stem from stands that Mills and Doris have taken on Hanson. Meanwhile, other trustee candidates have expressed concern with his leadership.
Mills said people are trying to make the races about Hanson when they should be about the people running. She said she stands by her support of Hanson and her decisions to vote for his positive job evaluations since he was hired in 2005.
Doris said Hanson isn't fostering a positive atmosphere. "I would like to meet and talk to him firsthand as a trustee and have him try and convince me what he is doing in his leadership position that is warranted for him to continue as superintendent of Fresno Unified."
The other candidate in the Area 5 race, Nicholas Montoya, also has issues with Hanson's leadership. Montoya said he doesn't like how the district spends its money and believes more needs to go into classrooms. "I think it's time we get someone else to look at things."
Area 6 trustee Ryan said Hanson has the trust and respect of community leaders and has had her support during her eight years on the board.
Of the four challengers for her seat, three are critical to some extent of the superintendent.
George Whitman, who received the teachers union endorsement, said while Hanson deserves credit for turning around district finances that had the state looking at taking control in 2004, his communication skills are "horrendous."
If Hanson can improve on sharing information with trustees, teachers, students and taxpayers, there's no reason he shouldn't stay, Whitman said. "But if he continues on the course that Fresno Unified is on now -- 'I'm the boss and you are going to do what I say' -- he doesn't deserve the job."
Other Area 6 candidates were less severe. Ken Trapp said he leans "a little bit on the side against" Hanson. Carole Blomgren said that while she hasn't met Hanson, people are concerned with district leadership and that morale has "never been this bad." Daniel Harrison said Hanson "hasn't been perfect, but he hasn't been terrible."
The three candidates vying for Moore's Area 2 seat offered lukewarm opinions about the superintendent.
"I think Mr. Hanson has done some very good things, especially on the fiscal side of things in getting Fresno Unified financially stable," said Daren Miller. But Hanson needs to do more to increase community involvement in the decision-making process, Miller said.
The district missed an opportunity when it failed to include a dropout and a parent of a dropout on its graduation task force, Miller said: "I believe one of the biggest things that has been lost with Fresno Unified is that they have no connectivity with the community at large."
Esmeralda Diaz, who has the teachers union endorsement, said she has concerns with how the administration allocates funds, especially as budgets grow tighter. "I'm worried they're spending too much money on administration and not in the classroom."
Luis Chavez said political battles may get headlines, but what matters most are the policies and programs offered to students, and parents and other members of the community should have a role in choosing them. Some in the community seem to forget that the superintendent works for the board members who represent the voters who elect them, he said.
It's hard to say how much parents are paying attention to the issue of political battles on the board that focus on the superintendent, Cummins of Fresno State said.
"Parents in particular, and voters, are paying attention to school performance, how their neighborhood school is doing," he said. "I would think that would be their first priority."
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