With the vote on Measure X about a month away, some Fresno Unified School District board members are still not sure the community has had an adequate opportunity to weigh in on how potential bond dollars should be used.
In several heated exchanges at a school board meeting Wednesday, trustees sparred over concerns that district leaders have not been transparent with the public about how the proposed $225 million bond would specifically benefit schools. The concerns about lack of community input come amid a federal investigation of no-bid contracts the district paid for with previous bond dollars.
District administrators contend they’ve included the public in the bond process, pointing to seven community meetings held this month and an online survey asking for input about fiscal needs. About 200 people gave input at those meetings, while 350 online surveys were taken. The district – California’s fourth-largest – enrolls nearly 75,000 students.
Wednesday’s discussion was meant to move forward a priority list of school needs that Measure X, which will be on the November ballot, would pay for if passed. Top priorities include replacing portable classrooms, creating more career-technical programs and improving student drop-off and pick-up zones, according to the surveys.
Trustees Carol Mills and Brooke Ashjian voted against the proposed facility plans for high schools on Wednesday. Mills said the district did not keep some of its promises made to taxpayers in 2010 prior to the passage of the $280 million Measure Q bond. Ashjian demanded that the district compile a detailed list of planned projects and a timeline for when they would be accomplished. Another concern is conflicting reports about whether bond money would go toward district salaries.
You’re rolling backward on promises you already made to the community.
Fresno Unified Trustee Carol Mills
At a Chamber of Commerce meeting this month, Superintendent Michael Hanson assured the chamber’s Government Affairs Council that bond money would not pay salaries. Then, he said, “No salaries. No teacher salaries. Nothing.”
But on Wednesday, when pressed by Mills, Chief Operating Officer Karin Temple said bond money would pay salaries for district staff members who oversee projects paid for by the bond.
“The only dollars that go to what you’re describing as salaries are for project-management staff that directly oversee projects,” Temple said. “The people that are there to oversee the day-to-day construction are considered part of the project itself.”
Mills said the district did not do enough to let communities know they could give input on the bond, saying only five residents attended the Fresno High meeting – the region she represents. Mills also says she has repeatedly been denied information about the bond plans by the district’s staff despite being a school board member.
“This is not acceptable. The community didn’t have input into this. I certainly didn’t see it until after it was a done deal,” she said. “There wasn’t adequate notice. I think we need more input from the families and the communities and the people who are going to vote for this bond or not.”
Trustees Cal Johnson and Christopher De La Cerda each interrupted Mills on the dais, with Johnson at one point saying: “You’ve already had your turn.”
I can’t go to my constituents and say, ‘Pass the bond and then I’ll tell you what’s in it.’
Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian
De La Cerda said it would be “ignorant” for trustees to withhold their support of the bond because “we don’t have some specifics.”
Ashjian contends that specifics are crucial for the bond to pass and says the surveys used by the district to determine needs are not adequate.
“Let me tell you what’s ignorant. Ignorant is not doing what’s right for the taxpayers. What we have here is a situation of public trust. I’m not going to be part of something that’s going to be put together on a napkin,” Ashjian said. “Let’s cut to the chase: I can’t go to my constituents and say, ‘Pass the bond and then I’ll tell you what’s in it.’ ”
Temple said every part of the district would benefit from the bond but said that what Ashjian is asking for is unrealistic. While projects will be prioritized, their implementation depends on many factors including unforeseen emergencies and state funding availability, she said.
We are very transparent and accountable.
Fresno Unified Chief Operating Officer Karin Temple
“Yes, we have a plan, but we have to shift when there are more impending needs. Project priorities may change over time as needs change,” Temple said. “We are very professional in the way we go about our work. We are very cognizant that the money we are spending is public dollars. We are very transparent and accountable. We will base projects on what the board tells us is the highest priority.”
Trustee Valerie Davis reprimanded Mills and Ashjian for their concerns.
“I would hate to see anybody pull their high school off a $225 million bond just because you don’t like this or don’t like that,” Davis said. “You can vote against it. Go ahead, vote against the possibility of replacement and repair in schools and classrooms. But I’m very pleased with this proposed draft.”
School board President Luis Chavez suggested a plan for schools to reach out to students about what they’d like to see the bond money go toward. The board will be asked to approve a priorities list next month.