The 11 people seeking election to the Fresno Unified School District board picked a great time to run, as three tough issues got dealt with in the past year.
First, Bob Nelson was hired last fall as superintendent, ending the stormy tenure of Michael Hanson, whose time was marked by controversy and iron-fisted management of the district. Nelson has shown much greater skills at collaboration and being open to ideas.
Second, trustee Brooke Ashjian announced he would not seek re-election. He had become a focal point of anger by the local gay community and others for a comment he made in a Bee story about teaching students state-required sex education; Ashjian said teaching about LGBT relationships might influence impressionable teens.
And the third worrisome issue melted away earlier this year when the district reached a new contract with the Fresno Teachers Association, which had put FUSD on notice when its members approved a strike.
That doesn’t mean all is fine at Fresno Unified. The state’s fourth-largest district, with 73,000 students, continues to perform below state averages on standardized tests, and keeps wrestling with how to best bring up the performance of African American students in particular.
Better integration of special education students is also a challenge. There is not enough racial diversity in the ranks of teachers, who are 60 percent white, compared to the students, at just 10 percent white. And the school board gave itself low marks for team work and communication among members.
But with the major distractions having been dealt with, the focus can return to the classroom. Four of the seven trustee seats are up for election on Nov. 6. and The Bee recommends the following:
▪ Area 1, southwest Fresno, Keshia Thomas: Thomas is a product of west Fresno, having graduated from Edison High School. A former teacher who then became a vice principal and director of a careers program, Thomas followed in the footsteps of her grandmother, Jimmie Echols, who taught in the Edison region for 30 years. Along with her institutional knowledge of the region and what its children need to succeed, Thomas has a clear sense of the challenges: “It is time to call the troops, we are in a state of emergency. We are far below where we need to be.” Also running is Robert Fuentes, a labor and civil rights attorney. Incumbent Cal Johnson is retiring; he has endorsed Thomas.
▪ Area 3, southeast Fresno, Valerie Davis: Davis first was elected to the board in 2004. A Bullard High and Fresno State graduate, she was an elementary and summer school teacher before winning election in Area 3, which includes Sunnyside High. In terms of closing the achievement gap, Davis cites launching a special summer program that focused on English and math; 350 students took part and 85 percent of parents were involved. Davis said improved relations on the board are critical since the trustees are role models for FUSD students. Also running is Karl Diaz, who teaches at-risk youth in a community school in Madera, and Mark Ratchford, an engineer with a local water-treatment firm.
▪ Area 4, central Fresno, Christopher De La Cerda: A school board member for six years, De La Cerda pointed out that his area is the only one to have three high schools: McLane, Duncan Polytechnical and the Patiño School of Entrepreneurship. The different approaches of the three offer various ways to engage young people who come from some of Fresno’s poorest neighborhoods. Duncan Poly offers vocational programs, including the newly started heavy truck maintenance course, while Patiño emphasizes learning about entrepreneurship in a professional business setting. De La Cerda noted that McLane has the district’s first dual-immersion classes for Hmong students. He is a former FUSD special education teacher. Also running is Genoveva Islas, founder and director of Cultiva La Salud, an organization that promotes healthy eating and active living.
▪ Area 7, northwest Fresno, Nasreen Johnson: A communications and marketing specialist, Johnson pledges to work toward better interaction among trustees. “We can come from two different viewpoints and meet in the middle, with kids as the focus.” She will bring an ability to see the big picture while understanding the details, thanks to extensive volunteering she has done in the district and community. Johnson grew up in the Bullard High area (she graduated from Hoover High) and has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business-related fields from Fresno Pacific University. Also running are Terri Edwards, who oversees Fresno Unified’s Parent University program; Terry Slatic, a retired Marine Corps officer (he is endorsed by Ashjian); and Amanda Karabian, a mother of two sons with expertise in teaching students with autism.
How The Bee came to this recommendation
The Bee’s Editorial Board consists of Publisher Ken Riddick, Editor Joe Kieta, Editorial Page Editor Tad Weber, Vida en el Valle Editor Juan Esparza Loera, and Vida Staff Writer Maria Ortiz-Briones. They conducted in-depth, in-person interviews with all the school board candidates except Mark Ratchford (who was unavailable) and Amanda Karabian (who declined the invitation). Additional research about the candidates was also done using publicly accessible online sources and The Bee’s archives.
The recommendation is just that: a helpful opinion meant to guide readers as they reach their own decision on which candidate to choose. This recommendation is the consensus opinion the Editorial Board; the news staff does not play any role in its creation.