Fresno Unified’s newest school will be located in southeast Fresno near Sunnyside High, but how the project is funded was a point of contention at Wednesday’s school board meeting.
In the midst of a federal investigation into how the district has spent Measure Q dollars – a $280 million bond passed by voters in 2010 – some trustees are questioning the district’s recommendation to stray from a voter-approved plan.
On Wednesday, the board voted to approve the purchase of more than 30 acres to build a new school next to Phoenix Secondary Academy, at the southwest corner of Church and Peach avenues.
The planning process will likely take four to six years, and details – like whether it will be an elementary, middle or high school – have not been finalized. Schools in that region of the city are overcrowded. Ayer and Storey elementary schools and Sunnyside High School are either nearing or have exceeded enrollment capacity.
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Wednesday’s 4-2-1 vote allows the district to reserve the vacant property, owned by Bedrock Land Development Inc., until it can be officially purchased for $3.4 million, assuming certain contingencies are met.
Trustees Brooke Ashjian and Carol Mills voted against the resolution, voicing concerns mostly about the source of funding. Trustees Christopher De La Cerda, Janet Ryan, Luis Chavez and Valerie Davis voted for it, and Board President Cal Johnson was not present.
Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple recommended that the property be paid for by Measure Q funds. But the facilities master plan approved by the board in 2009, which laid out how taxpayers’ money would be spent if they voted to pass the bond, says otherwise.
According to the plan, $3 million for a land purchase to build a new school in the southeast region of Fresno was to be paid for by developer fees – not Measure Q funds.
We need it, and I want it, but I’m not willing to throw Measure Q funds at it.
Fresno Unified Trustee Brooke Ashjian
Ashjian said he sees the need for a new school in the area. But – especially given the scrutiny the district is under concerning no-bid contracts paid for by Measure Q funds – the board should use the money the way it promised voters it would, he said.
“We need it, and I want it, but I’m not willing to throw Measure Q funds at it,” Ashjian said.
Mills also said, “I’m not going to agree to use Measure Q for this purchase.”
But Temple said things have changed since the original plan was drawn up, and that because the plan sets aside funding for site acquisition, it’s an appropriate use of Measure Q funds.
In other action, the board approved a temporary contract for additional financial help, a move that raised eyebrows among trustees.
Ronald Fortson, a retired chief financial officer based in Arizona, will work for the district under a 65-day contract not to exceed $75,000 to provide assistance in the operational services and administrative services divisions.
But it was unclear what Fortson’s duties will be. Some trustees pressed Superintendent Michael Hanson for details, but he only pointed to an “increased workload.”
While Fortson has been hired temporarily in the past when CFO Ruthie Quinto has taken leave, she said Wednesday that she is not going on leave and will be working beside Fortson.
Ashjian was the lone “no” vote on Fortson’s contract.
The board has come under fire recently for hiring other out-of-state consultants. Last month, the board approved a $95,000 contract with a public relations firm based in New York to supplement its 10-plus communications department.
On Wednesday, the board also hired a new chief information officer. Miguel Arias, director of Fresno Unified’s Community and Family Services and a State Center Community College trustee, replaces Amy Idsvoog as spokesperson for the district. He will be paid an annual salary of $130,000.
Idsvoog, who will continue working for the district’s communications department, has been serving in the role on an interim basis since Micheline Golden resigned earlier this year. Fresno Unified has had a number of chief information officers resign since Hanson was hired in 2005.