Education Lab

Friction builds between 3 FUSD trustees, Hanson

Relations between three Fresno Unified trustees and the district superintendent have become testy.

The three trustees say they're not getting information -- such as detailed budget reports -- early enough to make good decisions at public board meetings.

But Superintendent Michael Hanson says the friction is largely due to the political pressures weighing on the trustees while they try to figure out how to bridge a multimillion-dollar budget gap -- which likely will mean teacher layoffs.

Trustees Larry Moore and Carol Mills and board president Michelle Asadoorian say agenda packets, which are delivered days before regular meetings, frequently lack key reports and studies.

State law and board policy require that agendas be available 72 hours before a meeting. But state law requires only a brief description of agenda items that are up for discussion or a vote.

Fresno Unified's information gap is "a management issue, not a legal issue," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition based in San Rafael.

At the March 9 board meeting, Mills lashed out over having insufficient information on budget cuts before a vote to lay off 257 teachers.

She asked why the board wasn't provided all pertinent information and numbers until the start of the meeting. "It's hard to absorb it all and make a decision," she said at the meeting.

That night -- in a 4-3 vote -- trustees approved sending out layoff notices to teachers. Mills, Moore and Asadoorian voted against it.

The three said they also couldn't get information on state school improvement grant funding for Yosemite, Carver and Webster schools.

Their agenda packets came a week before the board meeting with only a one-page outline that didn't answer why the already-awarded funds weren't being spent.

They were later told that a PowerPoint presentation was being prepared and received a copy of the draft over the weekend -- but they said it, too, lacked details.

Mills said board members also have requested for months an updated organizational chart of management positions, which they are supposed to receive under board policy.

The trustees said they wanted to review those positions before deciding on budget cuts and teacher layoffs.

Moore's frustration boiled over at an April 27 board meeting when he threatened to take Hanson to court, claiming that the superintendent has ignored requests for information on district spending.

On May 6, Moore's attorney sent a letter seeking information under the California Public Records Act. The two-page letter from attorney Barry Bennett asks for -- among other things -- detailed revenue and spending for the district's Title 1 programs, which provide additional funding for schools serving high concentrations of poor children, as well as an organizational chart for all management and administrative positions.

"It's actually very sad," Moore said about having to involve an attorney. "This has been a problem for me ever since I got on the board."

Ryan, Davis back staff

But trustees Janet Ryan and Valerie Davis say that communication and information between district staff and the board have improved in recent years.

The superintendent and district staff are always available if trustees have questions, but some trustees choose not to take advantage of this, Ryan said.

"We already have more information than we had before," Ryan said. "There could have been times when the information could have come in a little sooner, but we are short-staffed, I understand that."

Said Davis, "I don't think they [district staff] are withholding and hiding things. And if there is any time I want more information, I will pick up the phone and call the superintendent."

Ryan said that details on teacher layoffs and budget cuts were well known before the March 9 board meeting.

As for Moore not having all the information he needs, Ryan said: "One, he doesn't read his material. Secondly, he is looking for ways to discredit the superintendent."

She said the trustees' criticism and interference verges on micromanagement.

Sheer, the First Amendment expert, said trustees are entitled to all that they request or need. But, he added, "staff may not always be able to satisfy their appetites."

The spokeswoman for Clovis Unified School District said that Sheer's observations are correct.

"We make every effort to provide information to the board well before it appears on the agenda," Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said. "However, in rare circumstances, when things are evolving quickly, trustees will get information at the time of the meeting."

Tough times a factor?

Hanson said politics -- not poor communications -- is the problem.

"The allegations and points about not having enough information have begun to arise, in my view, roughly at about the same time that there have been a couple of split votes on the board and these members have been in the minority on losing votes," he said.

Hanson said the district is dealing with millions of dollars in state cuts and is -- for the first time in years -- facing the prospect of laying off hundreds of teachers. He said that Moore -- former president of the Fresno Teachers Association -- is desperately trying to avoid the layoffs.

Asadoorian said she is offended that Hanson called the complaints politically motivated. "That's a rather unfair statement," she said. "I have been on the losing side of a lot of votes, that is not how I operate on the board."

Ironically, Hanson said, his review by trustees last year noted how well superintendent-board communications had improved.

That was last year, the three trustees said. But in recent months communications have worsened, they said.

Asadoorian said she could not discuss details of Hanson's evaluation last fall.

However, she said, "I have seen a real shift since I became board president [in December] and began asking more questions."

Correction: In the original version of this story, the attorney for Fresno Unified school trustee Larry Moore was misidentified as Bob Bennett. The name of the attorney is Barry Bennett.