The district’s newest trustees, Claudia Cazares and Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, who were sworn in Wednesday, voted in favor of Ashjian to take the helm, beating out trustee Christopher De La Cerda for the position. Trustee Carol Mills also voted for Ashjian, along with himself, leading to a 4-3 majority.
The tension on the board during the vote was clear. Hanson, who led the nomination process, allowed De La Cerda’s nomination to come first despite Mills’ objections. Mills said “There are other nominations” and said the process typically allows nominations alphabetically.
“We haven’t always done it that way. We’ve done it a number of ways,” Hanson shot back, proceeding with De La Cerda’s nomination. Trustees Valerie Davis, Cal Johnson and De La Cerda voted for De La Cerda, with abstentions from Ashjian and Cazares and “no” votes from Mills and Jonasson Rosas.
After the vote for De La Cerda failed, he and Hanson both called for clarification from the district’s lawyer amid the messy voting process.
“I’m wondering if it’s possible if we have discussion on this or are we voting?” De La Cerda asked before the Ashjian vote.
It’s not about me or him. It’s about 74,000 children.
Fresno Unified board President Brooke Ashjian
Ashjian and Hanson have publicly sparred since the district was served with a federal grand jury subpoena last year demanding information about multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts for school-construction projects. Earlier this week, when asked about his critics, Hanson alluded to another ongoing investigation: the California Fair Political Practices Commission’s interest in allegations that Ashjian has broken conflict-of-interest laws and failed to report numerous sources of income. The FPPC announced it was pursuing those complaints, made by an attorney who works for a watchdog group, in November.
Ashjian said he will be able to overlook his history with Hanson to lead the board, which he says will be very different with the addition of the two new trustees. Hanson plans to leave in August.
“It’s not about me or him. It’s about 74,000 children. My job is not to have a popularity contest or to make best friends or enemies,” he said. “I think you’re going to see huge changes from these two women (the new trustees), who are unbelievably smart.”
Wednesday’s meeting was Hanson’s first since he announced that he plans to end his contract in August, after serving nearly 12 years as superintendent. He received a standing ovation after people including Angie Nguyen, of the Fresno Housing Authority, told the board it would be hard to fill his shoes.
The relationships that I have developed in Fresno and with folks in this room and across the city, I will forever treasure.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson
“You have a level of influence that will be missed. People look to you for your leadership, and really it’s you who has that courage to do whatever it takes to do things on behalf of our kids,” she said.
Also at the meeting, Cazares, a project manager for Granville Homes, was named secretary of the board. Along with Jonasson Rosas and Mills – who was re-elected in November – Cazares will serve a term until 2020.
Jonasson Rosas did not hold back at her first board meeting, grilling officials about the district’s budget and bidding process for construction projects.
Kevin Carlin – a San Diego-based attorney representing the contractor who took Fresno Unified to court over a $37 million no-bid contract for Gaston Middle School – stood before the board and asked the new trustees to “take a strong look” at the district’s “lease-leaseback” deals, which are at the center of the federal investigation.
Carlin, who represents local contractor Stephen Davis, has asked Fresno Unified to join him in his fight to retrieve the $37 million from Harris Construction – the developer who was awarded the project – but the district so far has refused. On Wednesday, he asked the new board members to join his side, saying the only way for the district to “avoid favoritism, fraud and corruption” is to stick with the traditional competitive bidding process.
“I would urge the district to join with Mr. Davis in his efforts to return these millions of dollars that can go back into the construction fund for a new facility,” Carlin said. “Every dollar that’s overspent on a lease-leaseback contract for the purpose of convenience or otherwise is one less dollar you have to spend on some other project.”