Brooke Ashjian is not the simple attention seeking politician that some of his critics assume him to be.

Rather, he’s a complicated man largely shaped by a hard-scrabble upbringing, his Mormon religion, Armenian heritage and strong embrace of the First Amendment.

He has said a thousand things I wouldn’t say. He has said things that in my view are ridiculous — especially his comment in a story about sex education: “You have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way.”

And all too often his world view is binary: black or white, with me or against me, my way or the highway.

But I will defend the Fresno Unified school board president just the same.

Though many chose to judge him solely by his bluster and his sometimes unfounded accusations (especially those against my old employer, The Fresno Bee, and its top-notch education reporter, Mackenzie Mays), my measuring stick also includes what Ashjian has accomplished, how hard he fights for students and the actions he supports when those actions conflict with his personal beliefs.

No shrinking violet could have taken down former Superintendent Michael Hanson, whose iron-fisted management style intimidated other board members and whose glad-handing of Fresno’s power brokers enabled him to hide the fact that the district was stuck in neutral on student achievement.

No shrinking violet or someone preoccupied with preserving their wealth and status in the community would have challenged the cozy relationship between Hanson and Harris Construction that served up the lease-leaseback scandal and a federal inquiry into construction contracts.

It takes a person consumed by righting wrongs to do those things. Sometimes, it takes a person driven to extremes. Ashjian is one of those persons.

Moving Fresno Unified Forward

Largely unnoticed amid the furor that Ashjian has triggered is his drive to help students get the education, skills and support they need to succeed in the world.

Fresno Unified is finally moving on Career Technical Education. A state-of-the-art diesel technology center will open at Duncan Poly High School next year, and more offerings are in the pipeline.

The special education department is being rebuilt with a renewed commitment on helping students — instead of focusing on what can’t be done and spending millions of dollars on lawyers to defend the district’s failure to comply with the law. This rebuild includes six additional psychologists, bringing the district’s total to 56 and, yes, Ashjian anticipates some of those new hires will be working closely with LGBT students. In the next budget cycle, Ashjian says, more will be added. Good. Still more are needed.

The renewed attention to student health, which was begun under Hanson, is continuing with licensed vocational nurses replacing health aides.  The district has designated $1 million to boost achievement and lower discipline rates among black students. And a new system has been set up to track and counsel foster and homeless children enrolled in the district.

All of the credit for these improvements doesn’t go to Ashjian. Other trustees and interim Superintendent Bob Nelson have led or played key roles, too. But you should not overlook Ashjian’s commitment to making Fresno Unified better and doing right by students who must overcome the huge obstacles of poverty, family circumstances or special needs to succeed.

The challenges Ashjian faced growing up en route to becoming a multimillionare businessman left him with a soft spot for women and children. These experiences are why before running for the school board, he threw himself into volunteer work with the Marjaree Mason Center. It’s why he often cries when the topic is at-risk kids or women who have suffered domestic abuse.

Some critics say his tears are theatrical. I have seen his tears often enough to vouch for their legitimacy. They are part of the bundle of contradictions that is Brooke Ashjian.

When I was a kid, it was ingrained in me to judge a man by actions, not by his words. But words can be powerful, too. They can inspire. They can evoke sadness or laughter. And sometimes they can scar. Not just the object of derision, but the speaker, too.

I wish Ashjian were more judicious with his words. If he was, his passion for helping children would share center stage with his actions on their behalf.

Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire.  Contact Bill at 559 492-4031 or


7 Responses

  1. Jerry

    “You have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way.”
    I think this is a fair statement. Look at the Special Report by Johns Hopkins “Sexuality and Gender, Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences”
    There is no scientific evidence showing that homosexuality is innate and unchangeable.
    “Longitudinal studies of adolescents suggest that sexual orientation may be quite fluid over the life course for some people, with one study estimating that as many as 80% of male adolescents who report same-sex attractions no longer do so as adults”

    If LGBT group disagree, they can provide proof and evidence, and make fair arguments.

    • Larry Patten

      Check this out, Jerry . . .
      Not even the faculty at Johns Hopkins agree with this study. Me? I tend to trust scientific, medical information from peer-reviewed journals. The New Atlantis’ study is, er, “fun” reading, but it’s more opinion influenced by bias than a reasonable, rational argument or open-minded review of the literature.

      And Bill McEwen, thanks for this article. It was nice to find. Mr. Ashjian has many positives, but he needs to be more careful with his words.

      • Brenda A Linder

        His words are a problem because they advertise the way he thinks and feels. His belief system was removed from being personal and he threw it out into the public domain, as the president of a large, local school board. The original article was not a piece on his personal beliefs, it was an interview as board president on a state mandated program. McEwen wrote a nice opinion piece, but it is only that, a personal opinion about a man who says damaging things in regard to his job, based on his personal belief system. I’ll support the First Amendment until I die. It doesn’t mean I want people who think and act as Mr. Ashjian do, “molding” our children. He can continue to speak his truth all he wants, and the rest of us can continue to call him out when we feel his expressions are contrary to the well-being of the children he is supposed to protect.

  2. Chris

    Don’t I wish I could believe, like you, that he isn’t out for himself. But just the latest fact that he bought the name to the political group that was trying to expose him, in an effort to silence them, means you are wrong, Bill.

  3. MICHAEL sosa

    Mr Ashjian will also be part of a school board who will partially responsible for the first teacher walk out in over 40 years. Under Hanson, and 3 of the current board members, teachering salaries have decreased (2007 resession), out of pocket health costs have risen, classroom sizes are unmanageable, and district admin salaries continue to increase. This board under Mr Ashjians leadership has allowed the districts negociating team to ignore any and all fair negotiations. So what will your article look like when kids show up to schools without teachers??

    • Leilani

      You teachers are unbelievable. I keep hearing supports for students etc and so on, but at the end of the day, you want more money. Most people haven’t gotten raises in a long time – I know my husband hasn’t. You got a lot of disrespectful teachers out there, and test scores are not good. Most parents don’t think you deserve more.

  4. Leilani

    It’s much bigger than LGBT, morality, religion etc. It’s about professional integrity and understanding your role in the community. Any FUSD site based leader who shared their personal opinions in any public venue would be disciplined and likely removed from their position. On a smaller scale, all that hard work he claims to be doing is negated when he creates minefields for school principals etc to navigate with their students and their community ..and they are already working hard enough.


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