Fresno Unified trustees battle over $889 million budget

Fresno Unified School District school board member Brooke Ashjian.
Fresno Unified School District school board member Brooke Ashjian.

Tensions were high on Wednesday as the Fresno Unified school board approved next year’s $889 million budget, despite two trustees’ concerns that the spending plan did not fulfill the district’s promise to hear community feedback.

The annual budget will provide facilities upgrades, with $2.6 million going toward renovating high school bathrooms – the top priority of students, according to the district – in addition to repainting schools and replacing cafeteria tables and lights. Nearly $12 million will add new pools at McLane and Roosevelt high schools.

But trustees Brooke Ashjian and Carol Mills took issue with how the money is being doled out across the district, saying it does not reflect community input despite more than 70 public meetings held as part of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. The funding formula is designed to give districts more authority over how education dollars are spent.

Ashjian voted against Wednesday’s budget proposal and Mills abstained, voicing concerns about its legality.

“I sent an email May 13th raising concerns about the legality of a (Local Control Accountability Plan) and a budget that failed to address any of the feedback from these meetings, and I never got a response. I’m troubled by the failure to address these concerns,” Mills said.

Mills said at Fresno High, the top priority heard from the community was a call for more career tech education. While next year’s budget includes additions for career tech, Fresno High – which she represents – is not reaping the benefits of that.

“Somehow we can’t find any money to increase CTE in this region, which I find unacceptable. The opportunity for CTE has to be equitable, and the district is not doing that,” she said. “I understand that a region doesn’t necessarily get everything they ask for, but on the other hand, they should not, frankly, get left with nothing from their top three priorities.”

Ashjian, who represents the Bullard High region – which includes some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city – said his area’s needs also were not met. Ashjian referenced Proposition 30, which hiked taxes for Californians making more than $250,000 to offset cuts to the state’s education budget.

“Prop. 30 rescued the education of the state of California. To take money from the top 1 percent, and not feed the trough where it’s coming from, is not equity and not access,” Ashjian said. “My parents in the Bullard area, make no mistake about it, were not heard in this budget. My teachers were not heard in this budget. The elected trustee for the Bullard area – which is me – was not heard in this budget. To say we were is just not correct.”

Other trustees spoke out against Ashjian’s and Mills’ criticism of the budget, arguing it’s fair to the district overall and that not every region will get what it wants each year.

In an emotional statement, trustee Christopher De La Cerda shot back at Ashjian, saying, “poor people pay taxes, too.” De La Cerda said claims that some school regions are not being served by the budget are “simply wrong.”

“Sometimes it feels like as trustees, we forget that we represent all of our kids in this city,” he said. “It’s not about who can support our bond measures; it’s about our students.”

Trustee Valerie Davis also took aim at Ashjian, the board’s newest trustee.

“In 2004, we were looking at a state takeover. I don’t know what you were doing,” Davis said. “We have learned if you don’t drive the budget, it will drive you right off a cliff.  To say that people from your region didn’t get this and didn’t get that, that’s really narrow-minded.”

The board has been briefed on parts of the budget proposal several times in recent months. Tammy Townsend, who oversees the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, said that the district’s process has been inclusive and fair.

“We had extensive dialogue with what is best for our children,” Townsend said Wednesday. “While most likely everyone will not get everything they want, the reality is that most people would be hard-pressed not to find things in our LCAP to be excited about.”

Other plans for the budget include:

  • $2.5 million for English learners
  • $1.2 million to pay teachers for summer school based on their rate of pay, instead of a set amount
  • $925,000 for expansion of Gifted and Talented Education, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs
  • $800,000 to add counselors to expand restorative justice efforts
  • $700,000 to add school resource officers and expand gunshot-tracking technology
  • $600,000 to add social workers to support foster and homeless students
  • An additional $250,000 for legal costs. The district has been in court over no-bid construction contracts, which are now under federal investigation.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays