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Why This High School’s Paint Job Is Controversial



Save and move the murals but lose Edison High School's drab gray "prison" paint, Fresno Unified trustees decided at Wednesday's meeting. (GV Wire/David Rodriguez)
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The Fresno Unified School Board took mere seconds to approve next year’s budget totaling more than $2 billion at Wednesday night’s board meeting.

Want to check out earlier School Zone columns and other education news stories? You’ll find them at Nancy Price’s School Zone Facebook page.

But a proposal to repaint Edison High School, one of the city’s three oldest high schools and a mainstay of southwest Fresno, took nearly a half-hour to discuss — and that’s not counting the time for community members to speak for and against the proposal.

The consent agenda item looked fairly innocuous on its face: Authorize the superintendent or deputy superintendent to award a painting contract to the lowest bidder. Funds of $775,000 available in the School Facilities Fund. Give the supe or deputy supe the authority to award instead of the board because speed is of the essence to get the work done during the summer break.

Several community members who stepped forward to urge the school’s repainting remarked on the drab gray color that some school official had decided on years ago for the school’s exterior, without seeking community input. The result, they said: Edison looks like a prison. It’s depressing. It’s not inspiring to students.

Apparently the only colorful thing about the school, paint-wise anyway, are the street-facing murals of labor activist Cesar Chavez and poet Maya Angelou, which community activist Debbie Darden apparently is no fan of. In addition to the “gloomy” gray color, she said, there are “multiple unattractive colors where people have questioned, what is happening with Edison: yellows, blacks, two-tones, mismatched oranges that have been nothing but an eyesore to our community.

“As I traveled through Fresno, Clovis, looking at other schools like Bullard, Sunnyside High, Roosevelt, Sanger, Central, Clovis North, and Fresno High, I can’t help but wonder why don’t these schools have murals defacing the front of their walls?”

But community member Gloria Hernandez warned against taking any action to paint over the murals, which she said are protected by the California Arts Preservation Act of 1979 that provides legal protections for artists and their works, requiring their consent for any modification or removal.

She reminded the board of the outrage that erupted last year after a mural painted by students and an artist at McLane High School was painted over at the behest of school administrators, without consulting with students.

Also in School Zone: 

  • Fresno trustees ponder changing how board officers are elected.
  • Fresno High’s new principal is named.

‘Not Fair’

Trustee Claudia Cazares had an entirely different ax to grind. The Edison painting project, while sorely needed, was on the facilities schedule for next year but apparently was moved up because of community pressure. Cazares says she tells members of her northeast Fresno community that they need to be patient and wait their turn for facilities requests, so she was surprised to learn that the Edison project had climbed up the list.

“But when I see projects that are … being pushed ahead of projects that I also have been patiently waiting for and are on a timeline, on a schedule, I am not asking staff to push them forward, I’m being patient and I’m trying to be fair — I feel like it’s not fair,” she said.

Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas proposed a compromise: When facilities projects are moved up a year, the district then adds a year to when the project can come up again on the schedule.

So, after all of that, the board approved repainting Edison this summer.

As for the murals: district administrators assured the audience that the district has already been in contact with the artist, who is amenable to moving the artwork to another part of the campus. And, with last year’s McLane brouhaha in mind, no decision will be made about the murals until the start of the new school year so students can weigh in on it, they said.

Bylaw Change Rejected

Should Fresno Unified board officers be elected according to who can garner the most support, or, similar to some other elected bodies, should they take turns in numerical order of their trustee area?

The bylaws committee was advocating for changing to the numerical rotation method, said Cazares (Area 6). And if the trustee selected for board office was a troublemaker who was censured, the board could, by a two-thirds majority, remove the trustee from the officer position.

The bylaws also allowed trustees to opt out if they didn’t want to serve as a board officer.

Cazares, who called the proposal “monumental,” said it’s a change she’s been seeking ever since she was first elected to the board in 2016 because it gives everyone a chance to participate and removes the “politicalness” that trustees have to engage in.

But other trustees, who like Cazares have all served as board president during their terms in office, said they didn’t agree with the proposal.

Changed Her Mind

Jonasson Rosas (Roosevelt High region) said she initially thought that taking turns in rotation might be a good idea.

“However, having been here now a few years, I understand the value of that process and the value of picking board leadership and the point of actually picking and selecting the people that will be representing the board, and having that ability to have influence over how the agendas get put together as a spokesperson and everything,” she said. “And I’ve come to see value in that process, as ugly as it might be.”

It’s also important to have some balance of strengths of the people chosen to be board president and clerk, and for those trustees who want the office to have the support of their fellow trustees, Jonasson Rosas said.

In past board elections, there has not always been unanimous agreement, and sometimes multiple ballots have been required before a trustee won election as board president or clerk.

The motion to change that and other bylaws was rejected Wednesday on a 3-3 vote that came after Board President Veva Islas had to leave the meeting for an important family matter.

Fresno High’s New Principal Named

Fresno High will start the new school year with a new principal. Amy Smith, currently the principal at eLearn Academy, will replace Linda Laettner, who will become the executive officer of engagement and external partnerships starting July 1.

Whereas Smith’s appointment was on a 7-0 vote by the board Wednesday, Laettner won her new job on a 5-0 vote with two trustees abstaining. They said they could not explain why they abstained because it was a personnel matter.

Laettner was principal at the city’s oldest high school during some of its most turbulent years, which included the controversy over changing the school mascot image and concerns over school safety and whether staffers were appropriately monitoring gates and stairwells.

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email