Terms are expiring for three of the seven trustees on the Fresno Unified School Board, meaning big change could come in November during a controversial time for the district.
Fresno Unified trustees Carol Mills, Janet Ryan and board president Luis Chavez’s terms are up this year. Mills is running for re-election; Ryan is leaving the board after serving for 12 years, and Chavez has his eyes set on a spot on the Fresno City Council.
While official declaration for candidacy with the Fresno County Clerk’s Office does not open until next month, at least two new faces have emerged.
Elizabeth Jonasson, an information officer for the local California High-Speed Rail Authority office, said Friday she is seriously considering running to replace Chavez. The two are dating, but she urges the public to look at her individual accomplishments.
Jonasson has lived in five countries and teaches business classes at Fresno State part time. Her résumé includes a slew of nonprofit and student outreach experience, including work with the Parents Institute for Quality Education and Junior Achievement USA.
“I think we complement each other very well,” she said of her relationship with Chavez, who represents the Roosevelt High area. “We’re strong as a couple, and we’re strong individually. If you look at my qualifications, you’ll see someone that is ready to fulfill the duties of this role and take on these challenges.”
I think this is the perfect time to come in and provide leadership.
If elected, Jonasson’s primary focus would be on decreasing class sizes and investing in early learning, career-technical programs and English learners. “As a teacher, you add a couple students to the class and it really takes away from the time you can spend with other students,” she said. “It really has an impact.”
But she recognizes that it’s been a tumultuous year for the school board. A federal investigation of the district’s construction contracts is underway, and trustees have gone after Superintendent Michael Hanson – and each other – in the aftermath.
“While some people may think of it as a deterrent, I think of it as a challenge, and really our kids deserve nothing less,” Jonasson said. “I think this is the perfect time to come in and provide leadership.”
Claudia Cazares, a project manager for Granville Homes and a mother of three students in the district, is also ready for the challenge and wants to win Ryan’s seat to represent the Hoover High region.
“I think that the board is divided,” Cazares said. “If elected, I will try to make a bridge between the divisions. I won’t come in there taking one side or the other. I’m taking the children’s side.”
Cazares has lived in Fresno since she graduated 16 years ago from the University of California, Berkeley, with a business administration degree. Since then, she has worked for both the city and the county, focusing on community development and affordable housing. She said her top goal would be making sure students actually have the skills to thrive once they are out in the real world.
“We need to focus more on getting our kids college-ready,” Cazares said. “Even though our children are going through rigorous courses, only a small percent have the ability to actually function well at college. If our kids are going through the courses in high school, there should be no issue with them continuing that in college – and there is.”
I won’t come in there taking one side or the other. I’m taking the children’s side.
Ryan was first elected to the school board in 2004, around the time the district was facing a state takeover due to severe financial problems. She points to the budget turnaround and the passing of Measure Q – a 2010 initiative that authorized the issue of bonds to revamp the district’s facilities – as some of her proudest moments on the board. She says she and Cazares have the same goals.
“I could’ve run again, but I’m 77 years old and in poor health. It’s time for a younger person to take the seat,” Ryan said. “We all agreed that if we can break this cycle of poverty, that the community will thrive when we have an educated population. That was the key. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. (Cazares) seems interested in helping all of the children in this district, not just those living in her region.”
“We cannot be divided on the board,” she said. “You can have a difference of opinion, but to be so divided, it’s harmful to the overall mission to educate our kids.”
Mills also has been serving on the board since 2004 and plans to keep going. Mills, an attorney with the Fifth District Court of Appeal, represents the Fresno High area and was re-elected in 2012 with more than 60 percent of votes. In a statement Friday, she pointed to Fresno Unified’s near-90 percent graduation rate but said the district has room to improve in other areas.
“I have worked hard for the students of Fresno Unified and will continue to do so. Much progress has been made … but there is more work that needs to be done,” she said. “I plan to continue to focus on increasing (career technical education) options, addressing student discipline and the need for social-emotional supports and continuing to increase the academic achievement of all students.”
Chavez announced last week that he is interested in running for the Fresno City Council seat now held by Sal Quintero, who was elected to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. Chavez was elected to the school board in 2012 and currently serves as Quintero’s chief of staff.