Fresno Unified trustees shot down a slew of proposed revisions to board bylaws that would have lessened the power of the superintendent and given more authority to the school board president.
Revisions to 20 policies were submitted at Wednesday night’s board meeting, including changes that would have given embattled board president Brooke Ashjian more control over public meetings and agendas. In more than one instance, the revisions removed decisions currently in the hands of the majority of the board and gave that authority solely to the board president.
“There are a handful of changes that restrict or provide what I think is an overly abundant amount of power to the board president,” said trustee Claudia Cazares, who voted against the motion, along with a majority of the board.
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After trustees and members of the public expressed concern about balance of power, the motion failed, with only Ashjian and trustee Carol Mills voting to approve the proposed revisions. Ashjian and Mills are on the bylaw committee that suggested them.
The board president and superintendent both have power over what issues are placed on board meeting agendas. The proposed revisions would have given the board president “final say” on the matter. Other proposals aimed to strip new superintendent Bob Nelson of his duties concerning employee matters and his activities outside his role in the district.
What kind of message is it sending that we just hired a superintendent, and then we say we don’t really trust you to do the job?
FUSD trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas
“What kind of message is it sending that we just hired a superintendent, and then we say we don’t really trust you to do the job?” trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas said.
Jonasson Rosas expressed concern that the motion was submitted for a vote without discussion with the full board or public, and that the bylaw committee had asked outside legal counsel to oversee the revisions instead of district attorneys.
Ashjian said “we decided it would be best to get a fresh set of eyes on the board bylaws,” so Fresno firm Lozano Smith was hired to oversee the proposed changes. The district could not immediately say how much that cost.
“They speak for themselves,” Ashjian said of the bylaws Wednesday. “And the board certainly has the right to do what they would like to do, and I’m completely OK with that.”
Francine Farber, a frequent donor of scholarship funding for the district, requested that a public workshop be held to understand the many proposals.
“Some of the revisions are clearly serious, and would appear to alter the relationship between the superintendent and the board; the superintendent and administrators and the superintendent and staff,” she said.
The board ultimately rejected all of the revisions except for one regulation regarding termination agreements that needed to be updated due to changes in state law.
“In the past, our policies were changed and guided by, for the most part, legislation or the California School Boards Association,” trustee Christopher De La Cerda said. “These changes were not directed by anyone other than us.”
All of this is a dangerous symptom of micromanaging.
FUSD trustee Valerie Davis
One revision would have given the board president the power to extend or adjourn meetings. Current policy gives that authority to a board majority vote. Another would have given him the authority to remove public speakers. “Limiting public comment is concerning to me,” Jonasson Rosas said.
Another proposed revision would have removed the board’s authority to vote in a board president. Instead, the position would rotate by trustee area in descending numerical order, starting with area seven – the district Ashjian represents.
Trustee Valerie Davis scoffed at that proposal, saying a board president needs to earn the respect – and votes – of the other trustees. She said the revisions overstepped the board’s role in the district.
“All of this is a dangerous symptom of micromanaging,” she said. “We hired somebody to be in charge of this district. We give him the vision and the goals and policies to carry out what he needs to carry out.”
But Mills said a rotation of board president would remove “political maneuvering” among trustees wanting the job and ease divisiveness on the board.
Approving such an edit … will further damage the community's confidence in the integrity and competence of the school board and its current elected trustees.
Community United Church of Christ Rev. Chris Breedlove
“Personal agendas start coming out,” she said. “I think frankly it shows a commitment from the board that we will work together and support each other as board members even though we have our differences.”
Howard Watkins, former president of the Fresno County Bar Association, spoke at the meeting. He said the proposals lacked democracy, and pointed out that of the more than 50 pages of proposed revisions, none laid out a process for how trustees could demote a board president before his or her term is up.
LGBT activists and Fresno Unified parents have asked the board to demote or censure Ashjian after an August meeting in which he compared LGBT activists demanding his resignation to perpetrators of the Armenian genocide. Some trustees said there was no bylaw that provides for how to do that.
“I was surprised there was nothing about removal of an officer. That was a hot topic at the last meeting,” Watkins said. “I’m concerned that the president will have so much power that the board can’t do anything about it.”
You people were elected by the community to reflect the community.
FUSD volunteer Mary Haskin
The Rev. Chris Breedlove of the Fresno Community United Church of Christ, who has been a lead voice in calls against Ashjian, emailed trustees Wednesday, asking them not to approve the proposed revisions.
“Approving such an edit … will further damage the community's confidence in the integrity and competence of the school board and its current elected trustees,” Breedlove said. “What does it take in this twenty-first century to remove or censure a school board president that compares marginalized LGBTQ Fresno Unified faculty, staff, community members and advocates to the act of genocide?”
Mary Haskin, a volunteer with Fresno Unified for 17 years, also urged the board to reject the proposals.
“These proposed changes, I feel are egregious and ridiculous and inappropriately take away the shift of power of the superintendent who has been hired by you to run the district,” she said. “You people were elected by the community to reflect the community.”