By Ruth Gadebusch
Last month, after stating my belief in the public school system, I closed my column expressing concerns about troubles emanating from our local system, namely, the Fresno Unified School District. Granted, none of us can know what goes on in closed sessions as provided by law, unless an unethical board member breaches the confidentially; however, there is information to which the public is entitled. Strangely, there has been little new since that writing but that is hardly comforting.
To recap: A construction firm hired to consult in developing plans for new schools also received no-bid contracts to build the schools. Bids are a bedrock principle of fairness in allocating public projects. To make matters worse, it appears that this practice did not enjoy full disclosure to the board and, even worse, three members were, and are, singled out to be even more greatly deprived of entitled information. Arguably, most egregious of all when the consultation/bid situation became a legal matter, are the accusations of the failure to provide defending attorneys with full truthful information.
On this latter point, my question is, Are these attorneys still providing legal services to the district? It is my understanding that even a criminal defense lawyer is expected to receive full disclosure as to the guilt of the client. I would expect any attorney so hoodwinked to withdraw as a matter of ethics.
No one has denied that individual board members have been unable to get items on the public board agenda. Normally, the agenda is created by the board president in conjunction with the superintendent; however, any and every board member can request an item be on the agenda for public discussion. To do less disenfranchises any constituent of the board member whose request is ignored. Board members who do not agree with the subject in question have the recourse of voting no, letting the majority decide. Furthermore, any who would deny a fellow/sister board member the right to have an item on the public agenda might well be the one in the future whose request is buried.
As if this controversy was not enough, there is the matter of the automatic erasure of e-mails. At least there is some discretion involved when one erases their messages, but in this day and age where such passage of information is commonly accepted erasure seems to be a breach of public records law. Why do it? His excuse was efficiency, but that does not fit any definition of efficiency that I ever heard. In fact, the opposite. Normal people usually keep them for reference to refresh our failing memories.
Now for the overwhelming matter that has not been addressed thus far: The superintendent works for the board. In Fresno, this seems too often be a missing concept. One board member has even been heard to say that she looks to the superintendent for guidance. Wrong, oh how wrong! The board hires the superintendent who then works under board guidance.
If memory serves me correctly, this superintendent was hired without a national search but seems heretofore to have served as well as would be expected, all things considered. In fact, at the time of his hire, I was involved in a project with a number of his colleagues throughout the state who held him in high esteem reassuring me how fortunate Fresno was to get him.
Admittedly, I have had little contact with him and none in a professional context; however, from outside looking in, it does appear that he has gotten rather carried away with his own self-importance. Needless to say, this can only happen if the board majority is complicit. There is absolutely no excuse—totally unprofessional—for a staff person to play favorites among board members. In fact, the best defense, the best protection, the superintendent could have is assuring that all board members get full access to all information. The reverse should also hold forth with board members.
The nature of boards is that controversy will, at times, happen. The cure is that all be inclusive, acting with full respect and integrity.
We, the citizens, cannot know the dynamics of the board and superintendent, but from our view it does not look good. It behooves us to observe closely and recruit and vote for candidates accordingly.
Ruth Gadebusch is a veteran and a community activist, a former member of the Fresno Unified School Board and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Civic Education.