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Fresno Armenians Get a Building, Not an Entire School; Former Trustee Calls It a ‘Consolation Prize’

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The Fresno Unified School Board on Wednesday rejected the community’s overwhelming support to name the new campus at Ventura Avenue and 10th Street for veteran newsman and Fresno native Roger Tatarian.

After an hourlong discussion, the board voted 5-2 to name the campus that will house alternative education programs after local philanthropists Francine and Murray Farber.

Trustees Veva Islas and Terry Slatic, who rarely find themselves on the same side of an issue, cast the dissenting votes.

“We do not accept the consolation prize. Roger was the clear community choice.” — Former FUSD Trustee Michelle Asadoorian

Wednesday’s vote does not ease the political morass that developed after members of the Armenian community went public with their campaign to have a school named after a prominent member of their community — a campaign that former Bullard area Trustee Michelle Asadoorian said has been ongoing for years.

The motion by Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas to name the campus for the Farbers included a proposal intended to placate the vociferous and numerous supporters of Tatarian, who noted his local and worldwide impact as well as the fact that there are no Fresno Unified schools bearing an Armenian name.

Buildings to Bear Names

Jonasson Rosas proposed naming specific buildings on the alternative education campus for Tatarian, longtime Fresno Unified administrator Dolphas Trotter — who received more support in community nominations than the Farbers — and for labor icon Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers.

The administration building on the Farber campus would bear Trotter’s name, the early childhood center would be named for Huerta, and the career technical education building for Tatarian, she said.

The School Board agreed in the 5-2 vote to take up the proposal at the next board meeting.

If the project stays on track, trustees could vote on the construction bid by next fall, and the campus could open for classes by August 2023.

Asadoorian, who now works as a trustee liaison for the district, on Thursday called Jonasson Rosas’ proposal a “consolation prize” that the Armenian community rejects.

“We do not accept the consolation prize,” she said. “Roger was the clear community choice.”

Slatic, in arguing for the new campus to be named for Tatarian, noted that none of Fresno Unified’s 110 schools are named for an Armenian, even though Armenians represent 7% of the city’s population. The district has schools named after Blacks, Latinos, Jews, and Hmong leader Vang Pao, but Armenians have been shut out, he said.

New Campus Fly-Through Video

Nominations Aren’t Votes

The district conducted a community survey that netted 1,667 nominations before it closed on May 7. In the survey, Huerta received 30 nominations. By contrast, Sunnyside’s beloved principal Tim Liles, who died suddenly last year, had 41 nominations but went unmentioned by district officials. Likewise, former Fresno Unified administrator Holland Locker, also beloved by many, had 68 nominations but was bypassed in the building naming.

Tatarian, who retired from the United Press International as editor-in-chief and then returned home to Fresno to teach and mentor journalism students, had 925 nominations in the community survey. Trotter, who served as the district’s interim superintendent in 2000, netted 120.

Tatarian died in 1995, Trotter in 2009, and Locker in 2019.

Trotter’s supporters included former City Councilwoman Cynthia Sterling, who noted that the longtime administrator had made significant contributions to the district, including teaching and mentoring students at Fresno County’s old juvenile hall at 10th and Ventura, the site of the new campus.

“It would be an honor and a privilege to have the school named after him,” she told the trustees.

Decision Up to Board

Jonasson Rosas said the naming is not a popularity contest, but a decision that according to board policy is up to the trustees.

She had made clear her support for the Farbers early on. In addition, her husband Luiz Chavez, president of the Fresno City Council and a former Fresno Unified trustee, authored a resolution in support of naming the campus for the Farbers.

The couple’s philanthropic efforts include Steve’s Scholars, named after their late son Steve Farber, which provides college scholarships to Tehipite students who maintain their grades, attendance and do community service, and who graduate from a Fresno Unified high school.

“It’s not a vote tally in terms of who gets the most votes. Ultimately, as you saw in the board policy, it is up to the discretion of the board to choose the naming of the facilities.” — Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas

Asadoorian told GV Wire on Thursday that Chavez had approached her prior to Wednesday’s meeting with the offer to name a building on the campus after Tatarian.

“Luis Chavez … had requested to meet with me to try to strike a deal, which I found highly unusual because city councils should not be entering into school meetings,” Asadoorian said.

Jonasson Rosas said she also included in her motion naming a building for Huerta because residents had expressed support in emails and phone calls for considering the name of the iconic labor leader.

Those calls and emails apparently are in addition to the nominations that were made in the district survey that was released Monday after local news organizations, including GV Wire, submitted a public records request.

Is Community Input Ignored?

Asadoorian said she questions why the School Board even asks for input if it is going to be disregarded.

“The School Board is very aware that they get to do whatever they want. So don’t patronize the public in the future by asking for community input. Just go and do what you want. They have that right,” she said.

When asked by GV Wire after Wednesday’s meeting about the point of having a survey if the School Board ignores the will of the community, Jonasson Rosas said, “It’s not a vote tally in terms of who gets the most votes. Ultimately, as you saw in the board policy, it is up to the discretion of the board to choose the naming of the facilities. And I think it was a good, inclusive group of individuals that are all worthy of recognition.”

Jonasson Rosas would not identify Huerta’s supporters who called and sent emails but said they indicated they had not had an opportunity to participate in the survey.

Francine and Murray Farber

More than a dozen members of GO Public Schools Fresno were on hand for Wednesday’s School Board meeting at Gaston Middle School, asking the School Board to delay the vote and reopen the survey because many parents lack internet access or online prowess.

District spokeswoman Amy Idsvoog detailed the wide variety of communications tools, including emails and press releases, that the district had distributed in multiple languages to alert parents about the survey.

Give Parents More Time

Islas, who made a motion to table the naming decision, said the parents needed time to have input. Her motion, which was not seconded, came after Jonasson Rosas’s motion that was quickly seconded by board president Valerie Davis.

Trustee Claudia Cazares said that if the communication process is flawed, the district needs to address it. But the same process to notify parents has been used up to this point, with no complaints, she said.

And she questioned why past School Boards had not made a greater effort to recognize an Armenian with a school naming. To accuse the current School Board, the first to be a majority of Black and brown people, to be discriminatory and not inclusive is unfair, Cazares said.

But Asadoorian said there were prior efforts to obtain a school naming for Tatarian. Members of the Armenian community were prepared to ask for Tatarian to be the namesake for the new elementary but were told it had been promised for the Farbers. So, they agreed to bow out and wait for the next school, she said. At the time, Asadoorian said, Jonasson Rosas indicated she would consider supporting an Armenian name for the next new school.

But then poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s name surfaced and was selected for the new southeast Fresno elementary, Asadoorian said.

The Armenian community believes Tatarian deserves an entire school named after him, Asadoorian said. She said it’s likely the trustees will either name a building after him, in flagrant disregard of the community’s wishes, or name the building after someone else and then say later that the Armenians had their chance but chose not to accept the naming honor.

“So that’s really a concern to us,” Asadoorian said. “We want inclusion and equality, just like has been awarded the Jews, the Blacks, the Latinos. That’s what our hopes are for the future.”

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