Facing criticism, Fresno Unified details proposal for Measure X money

2016: Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson promotes Measure X bond

At a news conference in October 2016 at Duncan Polytechnical High School, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson promotes passage of Measure X, a bond on the November ballot. It passed.
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At a news conference in October 2016 at Duncan Polytechnical High School, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson promotes passage of Measure X, a bond on the November ballot. It passed.

Fresno Unified officials have released more details about how the district would spend $225 million if Measure X passes next month, but some say it’s still not specific enough.

Superintendent Michael Hanson led a news conference on Wednesday and said that “some of the poorest kids in the state of California would suffer irreparable damage” if the school bond measure doesn’t pass.

The district has been criticized for not being transparent with the public about exactly how it would spend the money if the bond passes. Some school board members have made those allegations: Trustees Carol Mills and Brooke Ashjian say district administrators have not adequately listened to the public’s needs. The concerns come amid a federal investigation of Fresno Unified’s handling of past bond money to pay no-bid construction contracts.

On Wednesday, Hanson recommended the proposed bond money be divided into five categories:

▪ $90 million for classrooms, technology and facilities;

▪ $50 million for arts and athletics facilities;

▪ $35 million for repairs to infrastructure;

▪ $25 million for career-technical education facilities;

▪ $25 million for safety and security measures.

It’s an absolute joke. All they did was slice up the pie and put it into categories.

Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian

The district has identified some specific plans for Measure X funding, including the replacement of portable classrooms, the creation of a new school in southeast Fresno to curb overcrowding, better drop-off and pick-up zones at campuses, and heating and air-conditioning upgrades.

Hanson said despite the recent allegations, the process of prioritizing needs for the money has been “open to all,” pointing to community meetings and online surveys designed to gain public input.

“It literally is much to do about nothing when it comes to true criticism of us not being transparent,” Hanson said.

Hanson said he was confident that the school board would approve the recommendations for funding at Wednesday night’s board meeting – in fact, the recommendations were approved on a 5-1 vote, with Mills opposed – but both Ashjian and Mills had not seen the proposed funding plan until The Bee reported on it Wednesday afternoon.

“We didn’t even know there was a press conference,” Ashjian said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s an absolute joke. All they did was slice up the pie and put it into categories. There still aren’t specifics about how, when and where the money will be spent.”

At Wednesday evening’s school board meeting, Ashjian grilled Fresno Unified Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple on the specifics of the plan to spend the bond money. He said he felt he was being asked back the recommendations based on information he hadn’t seen previously.

“I’ve been asking you for four months for a list of schools and what we were going to do, and then today – a month before the vote – you show up and you’ve got a list all of a sudden,” Ashjian said.

Trustee Valerie Davis told Ashjian that the recommendations are based on long-term planning that’s been in the works since 2009, well before Ashjian’s 2014 election to the board.

Trustee Christopher De La Cerda asked Temple questions aimed at clearing up some of Ashjian’s concerns, and then pointed out that if Measure X doesn’t pass on Nov. 8, the board’s disagreements about how and where the district spends the money won’t matter.

“As much as we want to complain about what we don’t have, we will have less should we not have any money coming in,” De La Cerda said.

As De La Cerda talked about the need for Measure X, Ashjian got up and left the room for several minutes, missing the board’s vote. As soon as the recommendation passed, Ashjian emerged and took his seat. Moments later, the meeting adjourned.

It’s when – not if.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson on passage of Measure X

Ashjian is involved in a new political action committee called Schools Not Scams, which opposes Measure X. Signs have been spotted on yards of homes in the Bullard High area that say “no more secret deals” and “no more FBI probes,” urging people to vote against Measure X. The PAC has so far received support from leaders of the conservative Fresno County Lincoln Club. The Fresno Chamber of Commerce has decided not to take a position on Measure X, after Ashjian and Hanson debated the pros and cons of the bond measure last month before the government affairs council. While a news release on Tuesday said school board president Luis Chavez would help lead Wednesday’s news conference in favor of the bond, Chavez did not show.

Hanson seems confident, though, of the bond’s passage. At Duncan Polytechnical High School – the district’s cornerstone career-technical school – principal Jeremy Ward attributed its success to the passage of previous school bonds and said if Measure X passes, Duncan will be able to build a new health and science wing for students interested in the medical field.

Hanson interrupted Ward to say: “It’s when – not if.”

Hanson says the proposed $225 million bond is not a large amount, pointing to Long Beach Unified, which is attempting to pass a $1.5 billion bond in November. He also touts that the bond would not hike taxes: It will maintain the current tax rate since taxpayers will stop paying on a previous bond at the same time that they start paying on Measure X.

He says the allegations about the district’s lack of transparency are merely political, insinuating that Mills’ concerns are because she’s not pleased with the proposed allocations for the Fresno High region, the area she represents.

People will understand that fewer funds mean fewer projects, but they don’t accept broken promises.

Fresno Unified Trustee Carol Mills

“We have a specific board member who would love us to take resources right now and take permanent buildings that are still very functional and take them down and replace them with new buildings like we’ve done at high schools across the city. And that is not what the priority of Measure X is,” Hanson said. “We do understand that while there’s limited funds in a $225 million bond, there’s going to be some push and shove and a little bit of disagreement between board members about how (bond money) can be allocated. That does spill over into criticism around the planning process. But this has been a completely consistent and transparent process.”

Mills contends that what the district has proposed for the Fresno High region is not what the families there want or need. She says the district has refused to hear the community’s requests and has gone back on plans to remove some outdated facilities on the campus in order to provide open space and better classrooms.

“People will understand that fewer funds mean fewer projects, but they don’t accept broken promises. These buildings were assessed in 2010 by an outside firm and found to be ‘unsuitable’ for educational purposes, yet with just an outside paint job Karin Temple pronounced them ‘perfectly good,’ ” Mills said. “Hanson and others repeatedly misconstrue remarks I made around the long-term site plan for Fresno High. … I can only speculate as to their purpose for doing so.”

Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria joined Wednesday’s news conference to show her support for Measure X, saying better schools lead to better communities – pointing to thriving businesses that popped up around Fresno High following school renovations.

“Now we see children and families walking up and down these neighborhoods,” she said. “It is really a true testament to the community coming together and willing to invest so that everyone benefits.”

Staff writer Troy Pope contributed to this report. Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays