Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson and school board member Brooke Ashjian went head-to-head over the need for another school bond measure at a Fresno Chamber of Commerce meeting on Wednesday.
Before the chamber’s government affairs council, Hanson spoke in favor of Measure X – a $225 million bond measure that will be on the November ballot – saying it is the only way the district can fund school facility upgrades and improve classrooms. The bond will not increase the tax rate (since an existing bond will run out at the same time), and will go toward improving career-technical facilities and is meant to “attract/retain quality teachers.” Hanson said the money from the bond, if passed, would not go toward administrative or teacher salaries.
But Ashjian presented what he said are the cons of passing the bond, pointing to a lack of public trust amid a federal investigation of no-bid contracts the district paid for with previous bond money from Measure Q. Ashjian said the district has ignored his requests for a detailed plan about how the Measure X money would be used, and is demanding more information on the schools that would be impacted and a schedule for proposed projects.
“Tell me that we are not going to get caught up in this lease-leaseback debacle that the FBI is here investigating FUSD about. Tell me we’re going to use the lowest bid and there will be no funny business,” Ashjian said. “How can I go to my taxpayers and ask them to fund a bond when I don’t know where the money is going to go?”
In response, Hanson seemed to downplay the ongoing federal investigation and pointed to pending legislation that would clarify the proper use of lease-leaseback contracts.
“There is no funny business going on. There’s been much made out of the investigation and so on and so forth. We have not heard word one since we turned over every document (the FBI) asked for well over a year ago,” Hanson said. “Legislation, as we understand, is right now sitting on the governor’s desk … which will codify how Fresno Unified was doing their lease-leasebacks.”
How can I go to my taxpayers and ask them to fund a bond when I don’t know where the money is going to go?
Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian
Ashjian said he would have a change of heart and support Measure X if he was provided with a detailed list of projects that the bond money would be used for.
“When it comes down to it, it’s about trust and responsibility and transparency,” he said. “Everybody knows there’s a need. This is not personal. I want schools, but I want to do it in the right way.”
Hanson pointed to several community meetings that have been held in recent months that are meant to gain comments on how the public would want the bond money to be used. He said that the district’s facilities master plan prioritizes what needs to be done, and that Ashjian’s request can also be met, but is being blown out of proportion.
“It should not be difficult for us at all to be able to put that thing together. It’s not the issue, I think, as it is being presented. We plan to be able to do that,” Hanson said. “When we did Measure Q, we were very clear. We will have priorities as we go into Measure X, no doubt. But we’ll also be very clear about the kind of things we’re going to be doing.”
There is no funny business going on.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson
Hanson and Ashjian have publicly sparred over many issues in the past year. But at Wednesday’s debate, Hanson said he was reluctant to face off with his trustee.
“I’m not in the practice of debating and arguing with one of my elected bosses in public,” he said.
After closed session deliberation on Wednesday, the government affairs council had not made a decision yet about whether to endorse Measure X, pending the completion of a priorities list, which Hanson said could be done by next month.
“The chamber has not taken a position as this point. We’re going to wait and see and examine the list of spending priorities,” said Nathan Ahle, chamber president and CEO.