Two Fresno Unified school board members joined city leaders on Thursday to oppose Measure X, the school district’s $225 million bond up for a vote next month.
Trustee Brooke Ashjian led the news conference outside school district headquarters alongside fellow trustee Carol Mills, Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau, county Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, Fresno Lincoln Club leader Tal Cloud and others to urge voters to reject the proposed bond, saying the district has not plainly stated where the money would go.
Brandau compared the district’s handling of the bond process to a controversial statement made in 2010 by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi regarding health-care legislation: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.”
Brandau said the city would not treat public money in the manner Fresno Unified would. “When we come before council and we’re going to spend taxpayers’ money, we are responsible to know all the details of where that money is going to be spent,” he said. “As an elected official, this is just not a model I can follow.”
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson has faced criticism for allegedly not listening to families’ needs for their schools and for bypassing the school board and allowing upper management to decide which facilities would benefit from bond money. The vote for Measure X comes in the midst of a federal investigation of the use of Measure Q – a bond passed in 2010 that paid for controversial no-bid contracts.
VOTER GUIDE: Find out more about the measure, along with other races on the Nov. 8 ballot
Hanson released more details on Wednesday about how the bond money would be spent if passed, categorizing the spending plan into five areas, but Ashjian says it’s not enough.
“This is bad for Fresno. This is a rushed plan, written on a napkin and shoved down our throats,” Ashjian said. “We need some kind of exactness.”
Fresno Unified has not honored the public process, and now they’re scrambling to look good in the 11th hour.
Former Fresno Unified trustee Michelle Asadoorian
Hanson contends that Ashjian – who is involved in a new political action committee called Schools Not Scams that’s opposing the bond – is creating a false sense of urgency regarding the FBI investigation. He called Ashjian’s opposition to the bond “troubling,” and said it’s something he’s never seen from a school board member before.
“We’ve not heard anything about the investigation in the district. We know we’ve not done anything wrong. We’ve been aboveboard. We’ve been public,” Hanson said. “Everything that (Ashjian) continues to allege is not factual, in my mind. He continues to bring this up as though there’s something there. And he uses it almost as a punch line when he has nothing else to talk about. He’s clearly in the minority, and he gets frustrated by that, and I understand it. I just don’t think it’s productive when we blow things out of proportion as it seems we’ve done today.”
Hanson said those who are opposing the bond measure don’t understand the needs of the district’s poorest students – pointing out stark income differences across Fresno’s high school regions. Ashjian represents the Bullard High region, home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents.
“We are working at the crossroads between race and social class every day in our schools, and this is the manifestation of that. We have a struggle over whose going to get what resources in the limited $225 million bond,” he said. “Anybody who says we shouldn’t be doing this for this city seems to me that they are very comfortable with the tale of two cities.”
We know we’ve not done anything wrong. We’ve been aboveboard.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson
Hanson says if Measure X fails, students would suffer “irreparable damage.” But Mills said passing Measure X would actually cause irreparable damage because it will make it less likely that the district can pass a bigger bond in 2018, once there is more time to revisit district needs. She said under the current process, voters are being misled.
“If you look at what is in the voter pamphlet and on the ballot, it lists every single school in this district, but the majority of those campuses will not be receiving funds out of this bond,” Mills said. “When you talk to families and you ask them, ‘Do you think you’re going to get money from this bond?’ the answer is yes. They think that because it’s listed they’re going to get it, but the fine print says it ‘may.’ ”
Former Fresno Unified Trustee Michelle Asadoorian – who publicly butted heads with Hanson during her time on the board – said the bond measure needs to be put on pause until the FBI concludes its investigation. She said Hanson’s news conference on Wednesday was too little, too late.
I can’t go out and advocate for a project without knowing the details of it. That’s just good old fashioned due diligence.
Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas
“Fresno Unified has not honored the public process, and now they’re scrambling to look good in the 11th hour,” she said. “We can’t trust a system that is currently smack dab in the middle of an FBI investigation.”
Ashjian also took issue with one of the district’s main selling points for the bond: It won’t hike tax rates. If Measure X passes, the current tax rate will stay the same because taxpayers will pay off a previous bond at the same time.
“This is the first time that your tax bills are going to go down. If we don’t pass X, your tax bill goes down,” he said. “One bond is expiring, and they want to add another bond to it so it keeps the tax bill the same. I’m saying save the money. We’re not ready. No blank checks.”
Cloud, a Fresno businessman involved in Schools Not Scams, called district leaders arrogant, saying they haven’t been straightforward with the public. “School districts think they can just pass these bonds at will,” he said. “At this point, districts aren’t doing much campaigning because if they just keep quiet, people are going to keep approving them.”
Borgeas said he would gladly support a bond that better detailed plans for taxpayer money, but that right now he can’t tell his constituents what they need to know. “I can’t go out and advocate for a project without knowing the details of it. That’s just good old fashioned due diligence,” he said.