Will FUSD's Hanson Cast Shadow Over Measure X Vote, Board Seats?

Nov 4, 2016

The future of one of the most prominent public officials in Fresno could be on the line Tuesday, but his name won’t even be on the ballot. The results of a vote on a local school bond and the political leanings of two new Fresno Unified School Board Trustees could be a signal about how much local support there is for district superintendent Michael Hanson.

Voters in Fresno are casting ballots on a $225 million school bond called Measure X and on two new trustees to take a seat on the board.

"This has zero to do with Mike Hanson. This has everything to do with transparency. Does it have something to do with leadership? Possibly," Brooke Ashjian

Looming over all the races is a man not even up for election: Superintendent Michael Hanson.

This week current trustees and Hanson critics Brooke Ashjian and Carol Mills upped their opposition to Measure X. They say the last time the district issue a bond it resulted in an FBI investigation and a lawsuit over how contracts were awarded. They are also worried about transparency in how the money will be spent.

All concerns directly related to Hanson’s oversight.

But when asked if opposition to the bond is a statement about Hanson Ashjian is coy.

“Let’s make no mistake about this. This has zero to do with Mike Hanson. This has everything to do with transparency. Does it have something to do with leadership? Possibly,” Ashjian says.

"It literally is much to do about nothing. When it comes to true criticism about us not being transparent," Superintendent Michael Hanson

Mills and Ashijian have both hit Hanson hard over what they perceive to be too much secrecy and a too cozy relationship with construction companies who build the schools.

Trustee Mills is similarly cautious, doubting that voters are thinking about Hanson even though she questions his leadership with the last bond.

“I have people who either say they support the superintendent and still won’t vote for the bond because they have concerns about the FBI investigation and the litigation. And there are other people don’t support the superintendent who say the vote for every school bond and they are going to vote for this one. So I don’t think this is about the superintendent,” Mills says.

For his part, Superintendent Hanson defended himself against accusations that the district is not being up front when he held a press conference in support of Measure X a few weeks ago.

“It literally is much to do about nothing. When it comes to true criticism about us not being transparent. We have been standing in front of the public every two weeks on televised meetings and in sessions like this in front of the cameras explaining what and why we are doing things. And we feel very good about the plan,” Hanson says.

But the question isn’t so much about if Ashjian and Mills blame Hanson directly, it’s about what voters think about his leadership and whether they trust his administration to spend the money properly.

Either way, for trustees to come out so vocally against a school bond is unprecedented says Fresno State political science professor Thomas Holyoke.

“Generally, school board members are supportive of raising revenue because that is what you have to do to progress as a school district. So, it is a surprise when you have Carol Mills and Brooke Ashjian campaigning pretty hard against Measure X,” Holyoke says.

Holyoke says he is not surprised that Ashjian and Mills would deny there that their opposition to Hanson influences their opposition to measure X but thinks the connection is clear.

“Oh yes, absolutely it is. Almost from the day he got there Brooke Ashjian has been going after Superintendent Hanson. And Superintendent Hanson it appears is starting to fight back now,”

This particular school bond only requires a 55% vote of support to pass, something that for most school bonds is a fairly attainable target. For instance, the most recent school bond called Measure Q achieved 75% support in 2010.

"I don't get the impression that a huge number of people in Fresno have been tracking the internal political fighting at the school board," Thomas Holyoke, political science professor

But Measure X is not the only issue at hand. Voters in two districts will be choosing new trustees and that could determine Hanson’s fate. There are already two strong anti-Hanson votes in Ashjian and Mills who is running for re-election unopposed.

If the other two seats are won by people skeptical of Hanson that could create a four-vote majority that could jeopardize his job.

All four candidates have avoided categorical statements of support or opposition to Hanson’s job, saying they want to wait until officially elected and for the FBI investigation to conclude. But at the same time, they have, to various levels, signaled their willingness to dump Hanson.

A clearer signal could come from the Fresno Teacher’s Association, which has been a fierce critic of Hanson and threw their endorsements to Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas and Claudia Cazares. Rosas’ opponent is Yuritzy Villasenor and Cazares opponent is Jack Jarvis.

Political Science professor Thomas Holyoke wonders if voters are paying close enough attention to the palace intrigue on the broad of trustees to influence their choice of candidate.

“I don’t get the impression that a huge number of people in Fresno have been tracking the internal political fighting at the school board,” Holyoke.

At least in the short term, Holyoke thinks the status quo will reign.

“Carol and Brooke are going their criticism of the Superintendent. And the superintendent will push back. And other members of the school board will push back in defense of the superintendent. I very much think the same political dynamics of the school board are going to continue for the next few years,” Holyoke says.

Whether or not Hanson played a big role in voter’s decision will become clearer Tuesday.