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Cal’s Confessional: Neighborhood pressure puts Johnson in a bind


Cal’s Confessional: Neighborhood pressure puts Johnson in a bind

The squeeze on Cal Johnson began at the pulpit.

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Cal Johnson may no longer be attempting to ferry Fresno Unified school board meetings, but that doesn’t mean his seat isn’t toasty.

In recent weeks, he’s felt the pressure that only befall a select few. It’s more than a testament to the state of affairs for Fresno Unified’s elected officials.

Now, I’ve largely refrained from referring to the on-going melodrama at Fresno Unified. My head spins just a few minutes into their byzantine meetings fitted with the pageantry of a royal court.

But far, far away from the boardroom and the courtroom, an issue has united the spectrum of Fresno – from Ray Appleton to the California Endowment: career technical education (CTE).

And as an election heats up, the one man facing more questions and feeling the most heat isn’t even on the ballot.

Johnson, considered a loyal foot soldier of the Superintendent, has had a frenetic career on the Board of Trustees. At times, he’s been the center of controversy. At others, a mere spectator befuddled by the controversy du jour.

The squeeze on Johnson is coming from all corners. But it begins, like most political inquisitions, in his own backyard.

Margaret Mead had it right: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can deliver change.

Even in southwest Fresno, it’s the only thing that ever has. And one such small group: the pastors of southwest Fresno’s black community.

The spiritual leaders have, on regular occasion, stepped in as civic leaders for their neighborhoods. Even in an uphill and unfruitful battles – such as the hiring of a white instructor for Ethnic Studies – the area’s faith community is a source of heeded input.

As such, they act as a unique power base that knows when to flex muscle.

Sources told CVObserver that Johnson was recently forced into a near-literal “come to Jesus meeting” with some of southwest Fresno’s most prominent ministers. The topic: Johnson’s embarrassing performance on the dais at Fresno Unified and constant failure to deliver for the area.

Johnson had few answers, multiple sources said, and a list of excuses as tall as the Tower of Babel.

During a town hall with the Fresno Teachers Association at Saint Rest Baptist Church, Johnson denied that his attendance at the event occurred because “the pastor forced [him] to come…”

Sources that spoke to CVObserver stated that Johnson’s sit-down with the pastors centered strictly on his job performance.

At last week’s town hall, Johnson was largely confronted with a host of even more complaints about the quality Fresno Unified, led by the lack of college preparedness. He provided few substantive answers there as well, according to a Bee report.

The recent stumbles amid the backyard pressure cooker could be easily dismissed but for career technical education, the great unifier.

After having lit his hair on fire to convince his colleagues that CTE was a critical – and missing – component of Fresno Unified’s offerings, Brooke Ashjian (and all CTE supporters) are slowly seeing progress. Most are still unenthusiastic about the watered down solution recently presented by Fresno Unified administration.

CTE has long been extolled by Ashjian and even Superintendent Michael Hanson as a necessary cure for educational and opportunity losses in the community that have left many poor and, in the most dire cases, homeless.

While the direction of implementing CTE is what separates the two men, they are joined by nearly every member of the Board of Trustees.

Emphasis on “nearly.”

Johnson took a different and strange route: he attacked the straw man. Discussing how CTE can, in the long run, help reduce homelessness, Johnson stated that the route cause of homelessness was “psychological problems” rather a bevy of reasons (including lack of initial economic opportunity).

Said Johnson: “We can do all the training, but when you hire people, everyone is not ready to go to work. I don’t care what kind of program you have.”

The statement, from an education official, is shocking at face value. This kind of slippery slope could (and has) been used to shovel the blame for ill-prepared young Fresnans onto the doorstep of Fresno Unified.

The representative of an area overwhelmed with crime, poverty, lack of education and limited access to the economy dismisses what Horace Mann called “the great equalizer.”

To Cal Johnson, perhaps public education is just a vanity exercise that justifies his appearance at meeting in downtown Fresno every few Wednesdays each month.

On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t be so shocked.

This is the man who was on a charter school’s payroll holding down a makework job that he couldn’t bother to attend. And that school had the dubious distinction of practically encouraging kids to skip school.

That is, right up until Fresno Unified pulled the plug on its charter.

A few more comments like that, voters might even be pulling the plug on its Trustee, too.

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Alex Tavlian

Alex Tavlian is the owner of Sultana Media. Views expressed reflect those of the author only. He can be reached at

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