A new political action committee is demanding answers from Fresno Unified School District officials about a controversial no-bid contract, and is calling for Superintendent Michael Hanson and the trustees who support him to resign.
Fresnans for Responsibility and Ethics in Education, a PAC that filed organizing paperwork in the Fresno County clerk’s office last week, aims to be a voice for citizens concerned about Fresno Unified’s multimillion-dollar contract with Harris Construction, according to Casey Lamonski, community relations director for the group.
A petition is being circulated to get rid of Hanson and Fresno Unified Trustees Cal Johnson, Janet Ryan, Valerie Davis and Christopher De La Cerda. FREE’s main website — fresnoisunified.org — calls the four board members Hanson’s “cronies” who have helped him “cover up and lie about the deal.”
A separate website sponsored by FREE — retiremike.org — takes issue with Hanson’s refusal to approve the call by Trustees Carol Mills, Brooke Ashjian and Luis Chavez for an outside investigation of the deal in question.
In June, the 5th District Court of Appeal found that Fresno Unified’s $37 million leaseback contract with Harris Construction to build Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School was not used the way the law intended.
Leaseback agreements were designed to allow cash-strapped districts to build schools by going outside of the traditional competitive bidding process and handpicking consultants who will front the cost of a project and then be repaid by the district in increments over time. The appellate court said that Fresno Unified’s deal with Harris Construction was not a genuine leaseback contract. Fresno Unified had the funding for the project upfront.
Where are the ethics and the morals and the foundations that we’re supposed to be teaching our kids anyway? Is this the kind of leadership we want?
Casey Lamonski, Fresnans for Responsibility and Ethics in Education
Critics have since alleged that the method was used to favor Harris Construction. The FBI and the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office are looking into the contract as well.
Fresno Unified is petitioning the state Supreme Court to reconsider the 5th District opinion.
“We have a lot of questions. We’re not a cash-poor district, so what’s going on here? The bottom line is that it doesn’t seem that our top priority is the kids,” said Lamonski, who is also the mother of a Fresno Unified student.
“Why is there no transparency? It’s our tax dollars that are funding these things, and our votes and our voices. We vote our board members on. They’re elected positions. So we have the right as citizens to say, ‘Hey whoa, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.’”
Lamonski said she hopes a recall election is the last resort and that instead Fresno Unified officials address a range of unanswered questions regarding the district’s use of no-bid contracts.
Several recall elections of local school boards are ongoing throughout the Valley, and can be time-consuming and expensive.
“We’re really just asking questions and wanting our district to be transparent and held accountable for what’s been going on ... but if it comes out that all of these things are true and backscratching is actually happening, then it’s time to say that’s enough,” she said.
“You’ve taken what is the most important part of your job — the focus on our kids — and are worrying about competitive bids and scandals. That’s not what this is about. Where are the ethics and the morals and the foundations that we’re supposed to be teaching our kids anyway? Is this the kind of leadership we want?”
But Hanson said that he is committed to transparency — pointing out that several leaseback contracts, including the one with Harris Construction, have since been posted to Fresno Unified’s website.
“We welcome all opinions and comments, yet we find it disheartening that misinformation is continuously being provided to the public in an effort to mislead stakeholders,” Hanson said. “Our district will continue to be fiscally responsible on all matters, and we look forward to continuing our process of providing accurate and clear answers to all constituents.”