While school board members are typically the biggest proponents of bond measures, concerns about public trust amid a federal investigation of Fresno Unified has some of its own trustees wary about a $225 million bond proposal.
The school board will vote Wednesday whether to place a bond on November’s ballot – two days before the Fresno County Clerk’s Office deadline to file election paperwork. Funding from the “Classroom education, neighborhood school repair, student safety measure” would go toward attracting quality teachers, improving career and technical programs, and repairing facilities, according to proposed ballot language. The proposed bond would maintain current tax rates.
About 75 percent of 600 voters surveyed by the district in June said they would support the bond. The survey also asked voters to identify areas of need for funding, and the district plans to conduct community meetings to prioritize investments later this month.
But according to trustees like Brooke Ashjian, the community was not involved in the bond process nearly enough – especially given the controversy regarding the district’s handling of previous bond money. A grand jury subpoena was served to the district in 2015, demanding information on no-bid construction contracts and details on how money was spent from the $280 million Measure Q bond that voters approved in 2010.
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The community wants this. We need this. Why in God’s name would we not support it?
Fresno Unified Trustee Janet Ryan
At a special meeting Monday, Ashjian said he could not support the bond because the district has not promised not to use bond money to pay for “lease-leaseback” contracts — the center of the FBI investigation. He also voiced concerns about a lack of community input and planning for the bond, saying that at this point voters don’t know exactly what they’re supporting. He says the district has not provided a timeline of the bond’s plans or which schools would benefit from funding first.
“I think just having three weeks of community feedback is nowhere near enough if we’re going to ask them for $225 million. I think people actually need buy-in and to know what we’re planning on doing,” Ashjian said. “I, for one, believe in infrastructure in projects and in school bonds. The problem I have with this bond is the cloud that we’re under. The community has a problem with trust.”
Superintendent Michael Hanson disagreed with Ashjian’s assessment of public trust, saying his concern “does not have legs.”
“Very few people understood what the big issue was about,” Hanson said, calling the bond a “win-win-win.” In the survey, about 25 percent of voters surveyed said they knew about the lease-leaseback controversy.
School board President Luis Chavez agreed with Ashjian that more community input is needed, but urged trustees not to let their feelings about the bond affect their vote on whether to put it on the ballot.
The problem I have with this bond is the cloud that we’re under. The community has a problem with trust.
Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian
“On Wednesday, the action is not necessarily a personal endorsement of this measure. What it will be is asking the taxpayers if they will decide to make these additional investments,” he said. “My support for it will be depending on what the community says.”
Trustee Carol Mills took issue with that philosophy.
“Frankly I don’t think the board should be voting to put this on the ballot unless they’re willing to support it,” she said. “I don’t think it’s something we just stick out there and say ‘Let’s see.’ ”
Mills – who has voiced concerns about the FBI investigation’s impact on the passage of the bond – said that several of her own inquiries about the district’s facility needs have been ignored by the district’s administration.
“I feel a little bit like this has been rushed,” she said. “To me, it’s a little hard to figure out whether we should go forward on this until I have the information I’ve been asking for … and we really decide what kind of projects we’re going to be talking about. It seems that we’re kind of jamming it here.”
Trustee Janet Ryan scoffed at some of the trustees’ concerns about the bond.
“The community wants this. We need this. Why in God’s name would we not support it?” she said. “Of course we’re going to support it. Good grief.”
It will cost the district $70,000 to $90,000 to host the bond election, according to the Clerk’s Office.