By Community Alliance Staff
Throughout this school year, the Fresno Teachers Association (FTA) has organized community meetings in the residential districts within Fresno Unified School District (FUSD). Stand with Students is a “program to bring people together from different backgrounds to work together for students.” That is according to Tish Rice, president of FTA, a graduate of Fresno High who taught at the school for 25 years. She noted that “not all schools are created equal.” When she goes from school to school throughout Fresno the disparity in resources is stark. The wealth gap in schools results in predictably varied educational outcomes for students.
One of the biggest gaps in services is in social and emotional supports. Schools in less affluent areas do not have full time school nurses or psychologists or even social workers. “FTA is committed to using not only words but actions to collaborate with the community.” Rice stated that when FTA asked the parents, teachers, administrators, students, and support staff (including clerical and janitorial staff) how to use the school district’s discretionary money three areas stood out. Fresnans in each region voted at their Stand with Students meeting to allocate funds to address class size, campus safety, and social/emotional supports.
While the decision to reduce class sizes, increase campus safety assistants, and ensure full time nurses and psychologists on each campus was undisputed, the issue of money has been a contentious one in Fresno Unified. For the last two years, the district has been embroiled in a lawsuit and federal investigation regarding building contracts and the leadership of superintendent Michael Hanson. The district has been accused of breaking the law when it entered into no bid contracts with construction companies for building on Fresno campuses.
The Fresno Bee reported that between 2011 and 2014, Fresno Unified entered into 25 so-called leaseback contracts. Originally developed for under resourced schools, these contracts let schools get around the standard bidding process to select a contractor, and pay back the costs over time. The issue is that Fresno Unified had a large influx of funding during this time. The district has argued this was all done legally, but the 5th District Court of Appeals undermined this argument in its statement regarding the district’s contract with Harris Construction to build Gaston Middle School. The Supreme Court denied the district’s request to revisit the appellate court decision.
The School Board has been divided about how to respond to the litigation and there have been conflicting answers from members about what official actions have been taken. While at the Stand with Students meetings for the Roosevelt region in February and that for the Edison region in May, FTA expressed their concerns about reports that Fresno Unified covered $500,000 worth of legal fees for Michael Hanson and hired more attorneys for him rather than use that money for those items the community asked to be set aside for student needs.
The executive director of FTA, Louis Jamerson is a graduate of Roosevelt High who returned to Fresno after working elsewhere for twenty years as a labor organizer. When he came back to Fresno he was shocked to discover how severe the problems in education were here. He covered the troublesome trends in the district. Statistics indicate that while more students graduate than previously, fewer are ready for college. 75-90% of African American and Latino students are not proficient in Math and English. Fresno also has high rates of racial segregation and unequal access to resources.
Jamerson declared that everyone in the community, from teachers and administrators to parents and students and their neighbors are accountable for the education of youth. He told the Edison region audience in May: “If you came here tonight to point fingers, you came to the wrong meeting.” He went on to say that if we have elected officials who are not taking responsibility, we have problems. Teachers need tools and training to be effective and students need support. We need a holistic approach and comprehensive plan.
According to Rice and Jamerson, FTA has a plan, but only three school board members signed this platform. At the Roosevelt region meeting, School Board president Luis Chavez, said he has signed the platform, including the commitment to smaller class sizes, social/ emotional supports, and increased safety measures. The district had $123 million more this school year than in 2014-2015. Jamerson asserted that it was misguided to put $10 million into new textbooks when 15% of students cannot read them.
At the Edison region meeting, the community was told that pastors from West Fresno and FTA leadership met to discuss whether or not to recall trustee Cal Johnson, who represents the West Side of the district. They were convinced to give Johnson another chance to prove that he had the interests of the students at heart and was not in the pocket of the superintendent. The 200 members of the community who came to the May 12 Stand with Students meeting were not so convinced.
Teachers and parents and other members of the community asked Johnson tough questions about his votes to approve money to cover Hanson’s legal fees. Johnson denied these charges and said that Hanson was paying for all his legal fees himself. When pressed about the meager 2% of students who graduate from Fresno high schools college ready, he disputed the statistic. When asked how should the community help you to help our children, he said to turn the television off. He would not agree to commit to smaller class sizes unless the budget could be shown to allow for it. One teacher accused Johnson of being out of touch.
When asked about the decrease in the number of African American principals in Fresno since Hanson became superintendent, Johnson replied that recruiting and retention of qualified candidates was a challenge. One audience member asked why a petition to keep a principal that garnered many signatures had been ignored by the School Board. He claimed it was not a board decision. When queried about retaining teachers, he claimed that FUSD has the highest salaries in the Valley. A Spanish speaker asked why there were not more supports English language learners. Instead of directly addressing her question, Johnson responded that language is also an issue for African American students.
Most of those in the attendance voiced frustration and dissatisfaction with Johnson’s answers to their variety of questions. Moderator Pastor Criner had to quiet the crowd a few times and remind everyone how hard it is for any individual to be interrogated in public by so many people. To an outside observer, Johnson seemed unprepared to address the concerns and uneducated about the problems. To those intimately involved, he appeared to placate them and avoid responsibility.
At the end of the Edison region meeting a local politician addressed the group saying responsibility shouldn’t all be directed at the trustee, but also toward teachers, FTA, and the superintendent (who was also in attendance). Jamerson told the policymaker he was welcome to organize such an event. He said that he was willing to answer questions of any kind. In closing he said that FTA has put together a plan to address the fact that leadership in Fresno has failed to be accountable to student needs.