The Fresno Unified school board held an abrupt, closed-session meeting Tuesday to consider hiring an attorney to represent top officials in the face of a federal investigation, but ultimately no action was taken.
While the board reported no vote was taken behind closed doors, the meeting’s purpose was to ask trustees to hire legal counsel for Superintendent Michael Hanson, Chief Financial Officer Ruthie Quinto and Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple while the U.S. Attorney’s Office continues to probe the district’s business practices, according to sources.
A federal grand jury subpoena, served to the district last month, is demanding answers about the use of public bond money and school officials’ relationship with Harris and Bush construction firms, which are regularly hired to build schools under no-bid contracts. The district is required to turn over a wide range of documents by Nov. 19, including officials’ personal emails and phone records.
The special meeting agenda only said the meeting was to consider three cases of potential litigation. Trustees would not discuss the matter because it was held in closed session, but Fresno Teachers Association President Tish Rice stood before the board before the closed session and urged trustees to vote against any proposal to hire a criminal attorney to represent the three officials.
“The students of Fresno Unified should not pay for the mistakes of the leaders of this district,” Rice said. “We live in one of the most poverty-stricken areas in this state, and I believe it is immoral for this district to be wasting money that should be going to our students. ... Do the right thing and vote against any proposal to pay for legal fees for Michael Hanson, Ruthie Quinto and Karin Temple.”
The board recently hired criminal defense attorney Carl Faller at $400 an hour to help the district comply with the subpoena.
The students of Fresno Unified should not pay for the mistakes of the leaders of this district.
Tish Rice, president of the Fresno Teachers Association
Rice also took issue with how the meeting was assembled: Notice of the meeting was posted only 24 hours prior, the doors to access the floor where the board met were locked and accommodations for members of the public to speak were not immediately available.
“They really weren’t anticipating anyone coming to this meeting,” she said. “This calls into question the transparency of the leaders of this district and furthers public suspicion. I’ve been in this district 16 years and have never seen anything like this.”
Trustee Carol Mills said she was not notified about the meeting until Monday evening, and said she was concerned that Hanson had talked about the specifics of what the meeting would entail with select trustees instead of the entire board.
Hanson did not answer Mills’ questions about which trustees he had spoken with about the matter and said her claims that she was left out were false – saying her comments were “disingenuous and a problem.”
“We need to obviously work on our relationship, but I don’t think on the dais is the place to do it,” Hanson said.
Larry Moore, a former Fresno Unified trustee who has clashed with Hanson in the past, also attended Tuesday’s meeting and said he hopes the school board will “do the right thing.”
Moore is now helping lead Fresnans for Responsibility and Ethics in Education, a political action committee formed in response to the no-bid contract controversy that is calling for Hanson to resign.
“It’s still my hope that the school board will do what their legal, moral responsibilities are. They are required to supervise the superintendent, and when an employee is accused of serious allegations of wrongdoing, they have an obligation to supervise him and get to the facts,” Moore said. “But so far they are acting as if they work for Mr. Hanson as his defense team. That is not their obligation.”
The board meets in regular session Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.