In the midst of controversy surrounding Fresno Unified School District’s multimillion-dollar no-bid contract with Harris Construction, some school board members are leery of future contracts and purchases approved by the district.
But after lengthy and sometimes contentious discussions, the board voted at Wednesday’s board meeting to approve contracts that included services provided for public relations and a health care project.
Trustees Brooke Ashjian, Carol Mills and Luis Chavez spoke out against a $95,000 contract to hire Green Streets Communications — a New York-based public relations firm headed by former Fresno Unified employees Jamilah Fraser and Shana Kemp.
The contract is in addition to contracts Fraser and Kemp received last month to help support the district’s communications department. Those contracts were for $14,900 each. The board is not required to vote on contracts less than $15,000.
The three trustees said that the district’s communications staff of 10-plus is already sufficient, and that the money should be used elsewhere and not on an out-of-state firm.
Fresno resident Andrew Fabela also spoke out against the Green Streets contract, pointing out that Fraser is known for “turning things around” and rebranding organizations that are facing controversy. Fresno Unified is currently embroiled in a controversial legal case regarding a $37 million leaseback deal to build Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School.
“It’s a waste of money to spend $95,000 on a company to come in here and try to spin the problems Fresno Unified has. We don’t need public relations…we’re a school district,” Fabela said. “I just don’t get how my superintendent can say it’s for the public and for the kids, and yet his actions are actually the opposite because he’s spending money on PR.”
The motion to employ Green Streets Communications ultimately passed after requests to vote on contracts separately instead of under a single motion were denied. The final vote was 5-1-1; Ashjian voted against the motion, and Mills abstained.
I’ve been operating in this arena for a decade now. I’m quite clear what I can and cannot do.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson
Purchase orders for pricey meals paid for by the district were also called into question.
Ashjian took issue with the district paying for things like a $1,225 bill from Bubba Gump Shrimp, a $1,000 bill from Ming Ho Kitchen and $300 spent at Bobby Salazar’s.
Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple said that while she couldn’t immediately give details about the expenses in question, purchase orders are double-checked to make sure they’re legal. Temple said the meals were likely for things like “staff appreciation” or “parent engagement.”
Another contract on the agenda raised eyebrows: $132,000 for international consulting firm Ernst & Young LLP that caught some board members by surprise.
The motion asked the board to ratify an agreement with the firm for an upcoming health care project, but Mills and Ashjian both said they took issue with parts of the contract. They also have been critical of the Harris Construction contract.
Hanson said it was too late to make changes, and that he had discussed the contract with all board members except for Mills and Ashjian.
“You don’t have the power or the authority to enter into this agreement without this board. Period,” Ashjian said.
Hanson said, “I’ve been operating in this arena for a decade now. I’m quite clear what I can and cannot do.”
The motion to ratify the contract passed 5-2, with Mills and Ashjian opposing.