Education Lab

Federal investigation of Fresno Unified strains relations among school trustees

Fresno Unified School District Trustee Janet Ryan, left, directs a comment toward trustee Cal Johnson during a board meeting in 2011.
Fresno Unified School District Trustee Janet Ryan, left, directs a comment toward trustee Cal Johnson during a board meeting in 2011. Fresno Bee file

Amid a federal investigation of Fresno Unified School District’s construction contracts, tensions continue to grow on the school board as trustees sling accusations at each other. But the board president says trustees need to redirect their attention to what’s important: running the state’s fourth-largest school district.

The latest turmoil on the board is sparked by concerns from trustee Janet Ryan, who says she is worried about some trustees’ compliance with the federal grand jury subpoena that was served to the district in August.

Ryan said that trustees Brooke Ashjian and Carol Mills did not turn in their cellphones to the FBI and are the only members on the seven-person board who have hired personal attorneys in light of the investigation. Ashjian and Mills contend they have fully complied with the subpoena’s demands but did not rely on district staff.

“Only five board members turned over their cell phones to the FBI,” Ryan said in an email to The Fresno Bee last week. “Brooke and Carol did not. Brooke and Carol are the only two who have hired personal attorneys. The rest of us don’t see why we would need one since we haven’t done anything wrong.”

Upon later hearing the two trustees’ claims that they did in fact hand over their devices, Ryan said, “I guess that will have to be proven.

“All I know is that five people do not feel the need for an attorney, and that’s all I can say,” she said. “I think the public has a right to know that much.”

Both Ashjian and Mills said they relied on their own attorneys out of an abundance of caution: When trustees were asked to hand over their devices in December, Superintendent Michael Hanson said he was serving as the lead on the collection of documents.

“I hired an attorney to assist me – at my own personal expense – in making sure that everything required by the subpoena was turned over directly to the U.S. attorney,” Mills said Friday.

“As (Hanson) indicated, he was overseeing the process, along with staff. If personal devices were turned over to the district, I didn’t want to risk having something withheld that I believed should have been turned over. As an attorney myself, I felt a strong obligation to assure complete compliance with the subpoena. Also, as these were personal devices  I wanted to be sure that confidential, private information unrelated to the subpoena remained confidential.”

Ashjian said he didn’t trust district leaders to handle the process, and questioned how Ryan was aware of how he handled the subpoena’s demands. He says only Hanson and district spokesman Miguel Arias would know that.

“I wasn’t going to send my stuff through (Hanson) when it was under his leadership that led us to this problem,” Ashjian said.

Ryan answered why she had supported a push for the district to hire attorneys for Hanson and other top district leaders such as Chief Financial Officer Ruthie Quinto in light of the investigation, but takes issue with Ashjian and Mills hiring their own: “It’s because they are being accused of something.”

“So they want to prove that they didn’t do whatever it is. I don’t know what they’re being accused of. We haven’t seen anything yet,” Ryan said. “All we know is, we’ve turned over a lot of information and our feeling is there’s nothing there to find. Nobody has done anything. That’s why we were willing to be as open and honest as possible.”

Ryan also said she was concerned that Mills uses a personal email account to conduct district business. But Mills denied any foul play and said all of her emails were made accessible to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The school board has been divided from the start of the “lease-leaseback” contract controversy – before the FBI became involved.

Last June when the 5th District Court of Appeal cast doubt on the district’s use of the financing method, which allowed it to avoid the traditional hard bid process, Ashjian, Mills and current board President Luis Chavez wrote a letter to the editor in The Bee, calling for an outside investigation of the district. Later that week, Ryan and trustee Christopher De La Cerda wrote a letter to the editor saying an outside investigation was unnecessary and defending the leaseback method.

Trustees have criticized each other for being too outspoken, or for not speaking up enough.

Infighting on the board has also had legal implications.

In October, an attorney for Ashjian served Ryan with a cease-and-desist letter, saying she had made false statements about him in The Bee. In September, Ryan accused Ashjian of breaking closed-session laws regarding Hanson’s use of Cyber Dust, a controversial phone app that erases messages.

In the cease-and-desist letter, Ashjian’s attorney says Ryan’s statements were false and defamatory. “At this point, my client is not interested in further engagement with you on this matter. Therefore, you need do nothing but to stop making false and defamatory statements,” the letter says. “However, should you continue in such conduct my client will be forced to take legal action against you.”

Ryan said she considered Ashjian’s actions a threat. She said that he has threatened another trustee in the past, but wouldn’t say who. “All I know is he speaks on the radio and liberally to The Fresno Bee, but the moment I say something about him – which was true – all of a sudden, he’s sending me a process server threatening to sue me,” Ryan said.

Ashjian denied making any threats and said that Ryan had publicly fabricated lies about him.

“What’s really suffering is the kids,” Ashjian said. “Because here we are dealing with these petty issues.”

Chavez said that the conflicts among board members are counterproductive.

“This distracts us from what we were elected to do, which is to provide kids with a quality education,” he said. “My job is to ensure we have a process where these issues can be vetted  and that we’re civil and respectful of each other. At the end of the day, we represent the kids in this district and the community, and we need to set an example of how to handle and conduct yourself.”

But De La Cerda said he doesn’t believe that the board’s discord affects its work for the district.

“Of course, I am disappointed that there are some who have selected to bring the same type of negative and personal discourse we see in the presidential primary, into our board room,” he said in an email. “This at times does make our collective work harder than it needs to be.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays