Mark Ratchford kept a serious face all night. He doesn’t like the direction of Fresno Unified and wasn’t shy talking about it.
Ratchford, educator Karl Diaz, and incumbent Valerie Davis met Monday (Sept. 24) night at the CMAC studios downtown in a debate among candidates for the Fresno Unified trustee seat representing the Sunnyside High School area.
Question after question, Ratchford, a local businessman in the water purification business, expressed dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, from the budget to special education to school safety.
Davis, first elected in 2004 and running for her fifth term, touted lowering classroom sizes and building new classrooms during her opening statements.
“Valerie, here, has been around 14-plus years. We need some new blood. We need some new direction,” Ratchford said.
Ratchford said he wanted to run the district’s $1.3 billion budget like a business — you can’t spend more than you make. He said only 20% of high school graduates can read and write at grade level.
Davis calmly responded that graduation rates increased in her time from 63% to 84%, as well as other academic achievements.
Diaz, an educator with Madera County Superintendent of Schools and active in his union, bit back at Ratchford’s school philosophy.
On the question of a potential parcel tax, Davis favored studying the idea of asking voters to increase taxes. She said the district needs more classrooms.
“It is a big ask. So, we are going to explore that with our voters. They’ve always been very generous with us,” Davis said.
Diaz also supported the idea, taking a shot at current Bullard High area trustee Brooke Ashjian in the process.
“I’m happy that certain people have chosen not to continue on as board members. Because any conflict of interest when you are dealing with the public’s money should not be there. We should have no influence from people who are getting contracts from Fresno Unified,” Diaz said.
Ashjian campaigned against the Measure X bond that voters approved in 2016. He’s also been subject of a Fair Political Practices Commission investigation over conflicts-of-interest. Ashjian owns Seal Rite Paving and worked with many local contractors, some of whom have done business with Fresno Unified.
Ratchford vehemently opposed a parcel tax, jabbing at Diaz.
“I’m listening to this man right here,” Ratchford scoffed, “talking about spending people’s money. It’s not his money. I look at every single thing on my tax bill, and it’s ridiculous.”
The three candidates also sparred over the state of special education.
“The special ed dilemma/issue is not one size fits all,” Davis said. She said special ed students make up 11% in the Sunnyside region. “There are lots of needs. What we do and how we do it takes lots of careful thought and planning and not some knee-jerk ‘fix this, fix that.’ ”
Ratchford continued his criticism of the district.
“The people running that whole division don’t know what they are doing,” he said. “My wife (who teaches elementary school) can run circles around them.”
At one point, Davis interrupted, asking Ratchford not to violate student privacy laws when telling his story.
— The three candidates showed rare unanimous agreement when they all expressed optimism about Superintendent Bob Nelson.
— While Davis said restorative justice helped reduce on-campus crime, Diaz rebutted with an anecdote of breaking up a fight he witnessed off campus.
Ratchford said that kids weren’t pushed hard enough and needed more homework.
“If they have to work harder, they’re not going to have as much time to look into other trouble,” Ratchford said.
GV Wire hosted the forum, with news director Bill McEwen serving as moderator.