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Analysis: Bill McEwen Of The Fresno Bee On FUSD's School Construction Controversy

Eric Paul Zamora
The Fresno Bee

There’s a controversy brewing in Fresno that has school districts up and down the state watching very closely. It all has to do with how districts spend taxpayer money when they build a new school. Traditionally districts would build up reserves or bond money for a new school, and then put the project out to bid for design and construction. The lowest bidder typically would get the job.

But there's also an alternative financing method known as lease-leaseback, that has given districts more flexibility in avoiding competitive bidding requirements. In this system, a school district will lease the land for a new school site to a developer or builder for a nominal fee. Then the developer will build the school and lease the buildings back to the district until the project is paid off. The idea was to speed up school construction for cash-strapped districts and provide more flexibility in the project. 

But in Fresno Unified, this method has sparked controversy and a lawsuit that may wind up before the California Supreme Court. A Fresno contractor is charging that political favoritism won his competitor, Harris Construction  the no-bid job to build the $42 million Gaston Middle School. The suit also alleges the district broke the law in the way the lease was structured, and in a pre-construction agreement that they say also contributed to the award. The district and Superintendent Michael Hanson deny the charges and defend their use of lease-leaseback as entirely legal, but critics are now calling on Hanson to resign over charges of a quid-pro-quo with Harris over the construction contracts. 

Did the district break the law or merely bend it? Bill McEwen, editorial page editor of The Fresno Bee to analyze the week's news and what it means for the future of Fresno Unified, and Michael Hanson's career.