Education

Fresno Unified board: 2 seats contested

Sparks are flying in one of two contested races for seats on the Fresno Unified governing board, while the other is relatively low-key.

Altogether, four trustees are running for re-election Nov. 2; Valerie Davis and Cal Johnson face challengers, while Tony Vang and Michelle Asadoorian are unopposed.

Vang represents the McLane High area, also known as Area 4. Asadoorian represents the Bullard High area, or Area 7.

Davis, the board president, faces a challenge from teacher and former television personality Silvia Astorga Salcido to represent the Sunnyside High area, or Area 3.

And Johnson faces retired educator Vurdell Newsome in the Edison High area, or Area 1.

Salcido is seeking election to the Sunnyside seat she lost to Davis in 2004, a few months after being appointed to fill the unexpired term of Richard Johanson, who had resigned.

Davis, a former teacher who worked for Fresno Unified for three decades, touts her six years of experience as a trustee.

She credits the current school board with improving student test scores and fixing Fresno Unified's one-time budget mess -- problems that had the district on the verge of a state takeover.

"This is not the same district I walked into six years ago," she said.

But there is much more work to be done, Davis said, and she wants the opportunity to finish what she helped build.

Salcido, who worked for KSEE 24 before becoming a teacher, said her background in education qualifies her for the seat -- she has worked as a foreign language teacher for both Sanger Unified and West Park Elementary School District in Fresno. She was public information officer for Visalia Unified School District and served briefly on Fresno Unified's board.

She said her focus as a trustee would be to better prepare students for college and improving school finances.

"Kids need good resources, textbooks and highly qualified teachers," she said.

But she's also concerned by the lack of Hispanic representation on the school board.

"If I don't win this race, there won't be a Latino on the board," she said. Salcido doesn't consider Davis -- whose mother is Mexican and father is Filipino and Hawaiian -- a Latino. She said Davis is "Asian Pacific."

Davis responds that she is culturally mixed, adding, "I feel badly that she [Salcido] feels she is underrepresented."

The two women have disagreed about other issues, as well. Davis insists that Salcido doesn't understand the problems facing public schools because her 22-year-old son attended San Joaquin Memorial -- a private, Catholic high school.

Davis' older daughters graduated from Fresno Unified schools; her youngest daughter is a student in the district.

Salcido said her son began his education in public school but wanted to go to Memorial -- a choice many families in the district also make.

In southwest Fresno, the race between Johnson and Newsome has been friendlier.

Johnson considers his work to help push forward the long-awaited southwest Fresno middle school one of his major accomplishments as a trustee. The middle school will end 30 years of busing children out of the neighborhood.

Johnson said he had intended to serve just one term when he first was elected to the board. But he said the board has been working well together as a team to turn the district around, and he believes his contributions will help keep the momentum going.

Rising test scores and a balanced district budget are among the successes he counts during his time on the board.

"We are one of the few districts in the Valley and state that did not have any layoffs of permanent employees," Johnson said.

Newsome said he doesn't "oppose" Johnson and doesn't think he's been a poor trustee for southwest Fresno: "It's not about Mr. Johnson. I am running for school board, and he happens to be there."

Newsome said his experience in K-12 education sets him apart from Johnson, a retired college administrator. He worked for Fresno Unified for 33 years, including as principal at Carver Academy and Edison High School in southwest Fresno, where he was involved in launching Edison Computech.

"I think I can lead the charge in that area; I'm not saying others can't," Newsome said.

None of the candidates received the endorsement of the Fresno Teachers Association.

Officials with the union said they chose not to endorse anyone and will instead spend their time and energy helping to pass Measure Q, the district's school bond measure.

Johnson, Davis, Asadoorian and Vang were all endorsed by the FTA in past elections.

Union officials said they were disappointed with the incumbents on several key board votes this year, namely the decision to launch an independent charter school at the former Dailey Elementary School campus and to hire nonunion teachers without first speaking with the FTA.

David Coss, vice president of FTA's political action committee, said they were also "unimpressed" with the challengers.

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