Two challengers are running against Fresno Unified School District Trustee Cal Johnson in November’s election, pitching themselves as grassroots community activists who are more in touch with voters’ interests.
Johnson is facing off against Golden Westside Planning Committee chairwoman Debbie Darden and at-risk teen counselor and school aide Christian Flemming to represent the southwest Fresno area.
The two-term incumbent is billing himself as a team player who has worked with his colleagues to complete major projects, notably the recent opening of Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School.
Meanwhile, Darden and Flemming accuse Johnson of being out of sync with the southwest Fresno community, and each say they’d bring fresh leadership. A fourth candidate, Charles Watkins “Muhammad,” could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts by The Bee.
It’s the third go-around for Johnson, who was elected in 2006 and was then a union-backed candidate and relative political unknown.
Much has changed in eight years. While Johnson no longer has the favor of the Fresno Teachers Association, he’s become a seasoned board member who helped push the new middle school in southwest Fresno, a project considered long overdue by many who have watched generations of kids bused across town to other schools.
Seeing the school open its doors this fall was one of his proudest moments, Johnson said.
“It was a community effort, but you always have to have someone who was driving those efforts,” he said.
His term hasn’t been without controversy. In 2012, Johnson came under suspicion for his role at the now-closed New Millennium charter school, where he worked as a crisis counselor. Johnson was accused of skipping weeks at a time while earning a $3,600 monthly salary.
Now, Johnson is getting more criticism, this time from challengers who say he’s not responsive to community interests.
But Johnson said he deserves another term because he’s been fighting for his community all along. He said he’s committed to hiring more minority teachers, partnering with businesses to strengthen vocational programs and developing mentor opportunities. He also trumpets his involvement in his church, where he helps with a drug and alcohol counseling program, and said he often volunteers with children who have disabilities.
Truancy and graduation rates top Darden’s list of priorities, and the administrative assistant says she’ll get off to a running start if elected in November.
Darden says that a speedy takeoff would be a change from current district leadership, which she said did little at first to get major programs like Gaston Middle launched.
Darden said she helped spearhead that project, noting members of the Golden Westside Planning Committee “even went as far as picketing in front of Fresno Unified School District” before officials took notice.
“We went in and out with Fresno Unified for a solid year attending those board meetings to put that pressure on. That’s what it takes, you have to have that,” she said. “ I truly believe that school would not be here if that had not occurred.”
She said she’d bring a community-centered voice to the board to make sure policy reflects parent and student concerns.
Aside from persistent issues like high dropout rates, Darden said she’d also put a high priority on funding for a new gymnasium and football stadium at Edison High.
Flemming, a widower and father of two, would bring to the board the voice of someone used to spending his hours on high school campuses mentoring student athletes and at-risk teens.
Raising his two kids alone also gives him special insight into how schools work, he said, valuable for someone tasked with key policy decisions.
“When you’re a parent, you have to go to parent-teacher night, you have to deal with progress reports, you have to deal with discipline,” he said. “I see Cal Johnson and Debbie Darden with a disconnect.”
Flemming said he’d focus on narrowing the achievement gap among southwest Fresno schools, a problem that’s long plagued Edison High and the area’s elementary schools. The latest academic performance index from the state, which measures school performance, shows Edison’s black students scored 244 points lower than their white peers on the yardstick that’s scored on a scale of 200-1,000.
He said he’d also make himself accessible to voters and attempt to unite the sometimes splintered southwest Fresno community.
Flemming was involved in a recent community feud over the hiring of a white ethnic studies teacher at Gaston Middle, initially throwing his support behind a group that opposed the hire. He later backed off and has since said he understands where each side was coming from.
If elected, “I would meet with one group at a time,” he said. “I would ask, what are they looking for? What are their expectations?”