While the Fresno Unified school board election will bring only two new faces to the seven-member board, it could mean big change for the district.
The state’s fourth-largest district has faced many controversies in the past year. An ongoing federal investigation will determine whether Superintendent Michael Hanson and top administrators misused taxpayer dollars to sign no-bid contracts. The district has been criticized for racking up legal fees in court related to those contracts and for not being transparent with the public about these issues. The concerns have led to calls for Hanson to resign – but the majority of the school board continues to support him.
Depending on who takes over for outgoing trustees Janet Ryan and Luis Chavez in November, that could change.
I think what’s exciting in this election is we have the ability to change the tone of the discourse.
Fresno Unified school board candidate Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas
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Last year, amid the controversy, Hanson received a positive evaluation in a 5-2 vote. Historically, a 5-2 vote is not unusual for many items that come before the board, with the lone opposition commonly being trustee Carol Mills (who is running unopposed) and the newest trustee, Brooke Ashjian.
VOTER GUIDE: Find out more about the candidates, along with other races on the Nov. 8 ballot
This year, Hanson’s evaluation process, originally scheduled to start last month, has been delayed more than once. Now, new candidates are being asked tough questions from the public about what they’ll do about Hanson and how they’ll handle the controversies the district is embroiled in.
“We need to work to develop the community trust because I think everything that’s happened with the federal investigation has damaged that. A continuing lack of transparency isn’t helping,” said Mills, who has been on the board for 12 years. “I’m hoping that there’s going to be greater transparency and more accountability with a change in the board.”
Trustee Area 2
Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas says she is willing to give Hanson a chance, but that he needs to be reminded that he is employed by the board, and not the other way around.
“As an employee, he is to carry out the directions set by the board. I’m not the type of person who would come out and say, ‘Get rid of him’ or praise him without having experience with him on the job,” she said. “It would be unfair for me to evaluate someone who I haven’t worked with.”
Jonasson Rosas, who works as a liaison and community engagement director for the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, has made parent and community participation part of her platform. That’s why she has been giving her cellphone number out to every voter she meets.
Because of so many other pressing issues and litigation, it leaves limited time to address the main focus that needs to be given to our children.
Fresno Unified school board candidate Yuritzy Villasenor
“We need to build trust. I want to be someone that people feel comfortable contacting me and letting me know how they feel. As a decision maker, I want to get as much perspectives from people as possible. I think what’s exciting in this election is we have the ability to change the tone of the discourse and lead in a new direction with a more collaborative style.”
When asked about her relationship with Chavez – the outgoing school board president running for City Council – she laughed at the notion that a vote for her would mean voting in someone too similar to him. “We are two very distinct people,” she said. “I think one of the reasons we are together is because we have a heightened sense of public service, but we are as different as any other couple.”
The second candidate is Yuritzy Villasenor, who says she would wait on the FBI investigation’s findings to determine what to do about district leadership but says regardless, the debacle has distracted the current board.
“There’s a lot of things that can be changed and need to be changed but because of so many other pressing issues and litigation, it leaves limited time to address the main focus that needs to be given to our children,” she said. “If there’s substantial evidence that (Hanson) is not adequately doing his job, then yes, we would proceed with the process that needs to follow.”
Villasenor has worked as a teacher and principal in Silicon Valley and is now back in her hometown of Fresno, looking to serve. She is getting her master’s degree at Fresno Pacific University in community leadership and transformation, and hopes to put her studies to use on the school board.
“I have a heart for change, and it’s systemic change that needs to happen here,” Villasenor said. “I want to serve my community. I’ve learned that within just one classroom setting, there’s only so much I can do. In order to make change, it has to be structurally changed.”
Villasenor’s top priority is getting students to read at grade level by the third grade – a deadline research says is critical to their future development.
Trustee Area 6
Claudia Cazares is often faced with questions about Hanson. “I have been knocking on doors for over a year and consistently asked by residents in my district what I would do with Superintendent Hanson,” she said. “It’s a question that’s being asked regularly.”
The answer is not simple, she says.
“I would come in with strong goals that I want to see in my district. I’m going to hold him accountable, and I expect our constituents to be heard,” Cazares said.
“But to say there will be drastic change, I think, is jumping the gun. It’s just like any other personnel matter: If goals aren’t met, (Hanson) either has to fix what was done wrong or we have to start the termination process.”
To say there will be drastic change, I think, is jumping the gun.
Fresno Unified school board candidate Claudia Cazares
Cazares, a project manager for Granville Homes and a mother of three students in the district, is focused on getting students college ready and is pushing for fiscal transparency and more safety measures in schools.
She takes issue with critics who have alleged that her boss – well-known developer and philanthropist Darius Assemi – would influence her decisions if she is elected to the school board. Assemi is regularly involved in Fresno Unified programs.
“I’m my own independent person. I was raised as a strong Latina. I went to Berkeley. I’ve been taught to think. I don’t need other people to think for me,” she said. “When I told my boss I was running, he was supportive. But I’m not controlled by one person or another.”
Also running is Jack Jarvis. He called Hanson one of the smartest people he’s ever met, but criticized several of his decisions as superintendent over the past decade. He pointed to a news conference led by Hanson in August where the superintendent celebrated “historic gains” on standardized tests because every grade level improved. But only 22 percent of students are proficient in math, and 31 percent in English/language arts.
“That was not cause for celebration. They say we’re doing really well, but I know for a fact that they’re at the schools right now tearing up teachers and principals. They put on a show and say one thing, but we’re in crisis mode in this district. The bottom line is this: Things need to change.”
We’re in crisis mode in this district.
Fresno Unified school board candidate Jack Jarvis
Jarvis spent nearly 30 years working in Fresno Unified, mostly as a teacher and principal. He is retired now, and wants to bring education expertise to the board, focusing on things like technology and school discipline. He says the district is pressuring principals to avoid suspending students, leading to violence in classrooms.
“Our city is going to fail if we don’t fix some of Fresno Unified’s problems,” he said.
As for what he would do about Hanson?
“If it comes right down to it, I’m open to getting rid of him. But if he’s willing to make improvements and change the way we operate, I could see him staying,” Jarvis said.
“The FBI investigation will come out and will identify any criminal activity. If I was on that board, I would be making sure we followed the due process and make sure we’ve got the district running right.”
Fresno Unified school board candidates
TRUSTEE AREA 2
Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas
Occupation: Community engagement director
Occupation: Teacher/grad student
TRUSTEE AREA 6
Occupation: Project manager
Family: Married, with one daughter and two sons
Occupation: Retired teacher, principal
Family: Married, with three daughters