After an intense debate, a divided Fresno Unified school board voted to move forward with plans to hire personal assistants for its seven trustees.
In a 4-3 vote on Wednesday night, the board approved the job description for “trustee area liaisons” – a new position that would cost the district a total of $175,000 annually. The part-time employees will make about $25,000 each and will “relieve board members of routine administrative and clerical details necessary to serve the needs of constituents.”
Wednesday’s vote merely approved the job description for the new position, with more board action required next month before anyone can be hired. But trustees went head-to-head over whether the positions are a rightful use of public dollars.
Trustee Christopher De La Cerda, who voted against creating the jobs, said that the idea goes against the district’s commitment to being financially prudent, and that calling the position a “liaison” is an attempt to soften the blow to the public.
“Whatever you want to call it, it’s still an assistant. When you put a dress on a pig, it’s still a pig,” he said. “But my concerns aren’t just cost. When you go into public service, you make a commitment and a sacrifice … No one asked them to do the job.”
$175,000Total potential annual cost to Fresno Unified
Trustee Valerie Davis, who has served on the board for 12 years, said that the district has enough assistance – pointing to the Constituent Services Office, which won an award this year for its work. She also pointed out that the assistants would make more than the trustees themselves, who receive an $18,000 annual stipend.
“You have work, you have families, you have responsibilities, I get it,” Davis said, seemingly talking to the newest trustees on the board, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas and Claudia Cazares, who were elected last November. “Let’s try the job for 12 months, maybe one term, and see what we can do and where we can find a really good balance before we spend $25,000 per trustee on something that just helps me be more me.”
Fresno Unified – the fourth-largest district in the state – would be the only local district to hire assistants for trustees. Of California’s biggest districts, most don’t use personal assistants for each board member. At Los Angeles Unified – the biggest in California and second-largest school system in the United States – trustees have an administrative assistant and other advisers. But other districts that are larger than Fresno Unified do not. San Diego Unified employs two assistants for the full school board, and Long Beach Unified has one secretary who serves its five trustees.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s still an assistant. When you put a dress on a pig, it’s still a pig.
FUSD trustee Christopher De La Cerda
Some trustees who are for hiring the positions suggested that those who were against it could forgo hiring one for themselves. Davis asked if instead of having an assistant if she could put $25,000 toward a student scholarship, but it was unclear whether the funding source could be used for a such a purpose.
Jonasson Rosas, though, thinks that hiring assistants will not only help trustees reach their constituents, but will help future candidates have the freedom to run for school board.
“I knew the level of responsibility that would be demanded of me when I decided to run for office. Elected office is not something everyone wants to pursue, but it should not just be feasible for people who are retired or independently wealthy or have the work flexibility,” she said. “They aren’t administrative assistants. They won’t supplant me at community events, but rather enhance them.”
Cazares, a project manager for Granville Homes, said she needs the help.
“Asking us to make further sacrifices where it cuts into your job, I think it’s short-sighted,” she said. “My job pays my bills and will help my kids get to college.”
Asking us to make further sacrifices where it cuts into your job, I think it’s short-sighted.
FUSD Trustee Claudia Cazares
Wednesday’s discussion got heated more than once. In response to De La Cerda and Davis’ opposition, trustee Carol Mills said she had heard from unsatisfied people in their respective districts, “so you might want to rethink that.”
After a student representative asked why the positions are necessary now but weren’t in the past, and asked to hear from the “most senior” trustee, Davis and board president Brooke Ashjian fought for the microphone.
Davis pointed out that Ashjian has only been on the board for two years, but Ashjian contended “I’m board president and I’m running this conversation.”
Ashjian said assistants are needed because it’s especially hard for immigrant and non-English-speaking parents to navigate the school system.
“I think it will improve our efficiency and our standing in the neighborhoods,” Ashjian said. “I realize that some of our members are retired or don’t currently work and for them, they have a little bit more time.”