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Bill McEwen: Connecting the dots in Fresno Unified school construction contract controversy

Fresno Unified School District superintendent Michael Hanson explains the lease-leaseback agreement the district undertook for construction during a press conference last month.
Fresno Unified School District superintendent Michael Hanson explains the lease-leaseback agreement the district undertook for construction during a press conference last month. ezamora@fresnobee.com

When I wrote in 2012 about Fresno Unified School District awarding many major building contracts to a single firm without competitive bidding, I asked Superintendent Michael Hanson this question:

Is there a potential for trustee campaign and bond measure donations from the construction industry to combine with the absence of competitive bidding on school construction contracts to create an appearance of pay to play in the district?

“From my perspective, I would say, ask that same question with all candidates and all contributors. This conversation happens in every elected race across America. This is who’s contributing and what do they think they’re going to get from that?” Hanson said.

“Readers should decide after they look at the list of contributors to all the candidates. People need to look at that information and if they want to make a guess after that, fine.”

If not for the perseverance of one of the contractors frozen out of the action by Fresno Unified’s embrace of leaseback construction, which doesn’t require competitive bidding, the story might have died there.

But Stephen Davis, president of Fresno-based Davis-Moreno Construction Inc., filed suit against the district. And when his suit was rejected by a Fresno Superior Court judge, Davis took his case to the Fifth District Court of Appeal.

The appellate court said, in essence, that Davis was entitled to his day in court. An agreement between Fresno Unified and Harris Construction to build Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School wasn’t a real lease, the justices decided.

The appellate court verdict reignited the controversy over the district’s awarding of what had grown to $117 million in contracts to Harris Construction and spurred new reporting. When I wrote my story, I focused on campaign contributions to trustees races and the $280 million Measure Q bond measure from Harris Construction and the firm’s owner, Richard Spencer.

But veteran journalist and author Mark Arax — an outspoken Hanson critic and the brother of former trustee Michelle Asadoorian — has since connected more of the dots in a piece that he published this week on his website. You can read it at www.mark-arax.com/thearaxfile.htm.

In “Pay to Play: The Makings of a Fresno Unified Scandal,” Arax writes of close ties between Hanson, Assistant Superintendent Ruthie Quinto and the Spencer family. And Arax reports that Richard Spencer’s support of Hanson went well beyond backing trustees who have supported the superintendent through thick and thin. Spencer also purchased radio ads on KMJ praising Hanson, and helped pay for Hanson’s annual “State of Education” event and the district’s annual “Convocation” kicking off the school year.

“Tens of thousands of dollars … is unaccounted for in district records,” Arax writes of Spencer’s contributions for those events.

Even before Arax published his story, Hanson was feeling heat from a community that might not understand the fine print of school construction contracts or the nuanced reasoning of an appellate court. This is because when something smells fishy, taxpayers want to follow the scent and find out what’s going on.

So Hanson held a news conference July 8 in which he vigorously defended the district’s use of leaseback arrangements to build and renovate schools, and the district’s frequent selection of Harris Construction for projects.

Asked by a reporter whether the district had shown favoritism toward Harris Construction, Hanson said that the district’s repeated use of the contractor was “not a coincidence. It’s evidence of good work, it’s evidence of a great track record, it’s evidence of creativity … and it’s also evidence that they can do big complicated projects.”

Back in 2012 — well before Harris Construction was awarded $35.2 million to renovate Bullard High — Hanson answered a similar question from me by saying that Harris was uniquely qualified to handle big projects.

I didn’t believe him then. I don’t believe him now. In a metropolitan area with more than 1 million people, there is only one construction company that can do complicated projects?

That’s nonsense. Our area has many well-established contractors who do big projects throughout the state. They complete their work on time and on budget.

The overarching theme of Hanson’s news conference was that the district has all its ducks in a row, the district practices transparency and every decision the district makes is guided by what’s best for students.

So, when Hanson ordered the district’s public-relations office in 2012 to put out “news” releases — later proven to be false — defending embattled trustee Tony Vang, who wasn’t even living in Fresno Unified’s boundaries much less the area he represented, that was done to help students and not to protect a trustee who always sided with Hanson?

So, later that year, when Hanson misrepresented facts in a letter to “community partners” posted on the district’s website about the controversial and failing New Millennium charter school, he did so to help students and not as a favor to trustee Cal Johnson, who worked at New Millennium?

To refresh your memory, the superintendent said in the letter that actions taken by the California Department of Education prevented the district from moving forward with revoking New Millennium’s charter.

"We didn’t give the charter. We can’t revoke the charter,” a CDE spokeswoman told me at the time. “I don’t understand the superintendent’s statement.”

New Millennium, with its abysmal graduation rates and student academic performance, finally lost its charter in 2013 after coming under the scrutiny of the Fresno County Grand Jury.

As for all those ducks being in a row, consider that Hanson said at the leaseback news conference that a preconstruction agreement between Harris Construction and the district to build Gaston was “never entered into evidence” at the appellate hearing in the Davis-Moreno case.

That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth.

Here’s exactly what the attorney representing Fresno Unified told the court: “There is no preconstruction agreement.”

Tell me, with Fresno Unified’s preferred way of building and remodeling schools on the line, how does its attorney go into an appellate court and tell the judges something that is false?

Bottom line: Superintendents serve at the pleasure of the trustees. Richard Spencer has been very generous in his support of the superintendent and those trustees loyal to Hanson. A reasonable person might wonder if this support influenced the selection of contractors in a district with $280 million to spend on renovating and building schools.

Bill McEwen is The Bee’s editorial page editor. Contact him at (559) 441-6632 or via Twitter, @fresnomac.

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