New FUSD trustee gets a $2,500 campaign donation. But then she gave it back

Newly elected Fresno Unified school board member Claudia Cazares.
Newly elected Fresno Unified school board member Claudia Cazares.

Claudia Cazares, who was elected to the Fresno Unified school board earlier this month, rejected a campaign donation made by Richard Spencer – the developer whose no-bid contracts with the district are currently under an FBI investigation.

According to Fresno County records, Spencer – the owner of Harris Construction – donated $2,500 to Cazares’ campaign in June, but Cazares returned that contribution by September.

“I returned it after I saw who it was from. I just wanted to make sure going into a possible board position that I would be clear of any biases on that issue,” Cazares said Monday.

Last year, Fresno Unified was served with a grand jury subpoena that demanded answers about the use of public bond money to pay for controversial “lease-leaseback” contracts, specifically those signed with Harris Construction and Bush Construction.

Leaseback contracts are meant to allow poor districts to build schools without using the traditional competitive bidding process, allowing them to instead handpick builders. But questions have been raised about whether Fresno Unified properly used the unique financing method.

A court battle also is ongoing, in which a Fresno contractor alleges that Fresno Unified wrongly used the leaseback process to award a $37 million contract to Harris Construction to build Gaston Middle School.

“I thought it would be best just to return it and go in with a clean slate – and not be accused of leaning one way or another on the lease-leaseback issue,” Cazares said. “That’s been such a big issue in my community and in the district.”

Cazares said she called Spencer herself to tell him she would not be cashing in his check. “He seemed like he was understanding,” she said.

Spencer is a major political contributor in the Valley, giving to various candidates and school bonds this election season and in years past. However, he was noticeably absent from donations to Measure X – the $225 million school bond measure for Fresno Unified that voters passed this month.

Spencer was the biggest donor to the Measure Q campaign, a bond Fresno Unified voters backed in 2010. He ultimately was the biggest recipient of Measure Q money as well, receiving millions in leaseback contracts paid for with the bond funds.

Since the investigation into the district began, the school board has been divided: Trustees Carol Mills and Brooke Ashjian refused to support the passage of Measure X in light of the matter.

Cazares and new school board member Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas will be officially sworn in at a board meeting Dec. 14, replacing trustees Janet Ryan and Luis Chavez.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays