published on March 8, 2017 - 3:10 AM
Written by Al Smith
On a recent brisk February morning, I along with 300 others streamed into the cavernous banquet area of a downtown office building to hear Fresno’s new Mayor, Lee Brand, lay out his vision of what he hopes this community will be like under his administration.


As he talked that morning, I was struck mostly by “Hizzoner’s” emphasis on working toward bringing the ENTIRE community together.

Former Mayor Alan Autry repeatedly talked about Fresno’s “tale of two cities” detailing the huge gap between, as he put it, “those north of Shaw and those (located) south.”  

Many have accused Fresno of being like a banana republic: Huge money at one end, poverty at the other, not much in between.

So now comes this new mayor — a man from south of Shaw, who was raised in a modest two-bedroom, one-bath house on East McKenzie Street. He is not an attorney, not an academic, not a benefactor of handed-down wealth.  

His life road followed the great American story line: humble beginnings, a modest upbringing, intense grit and determination and finally, personal success.

Added to Brand’s roadmap is one important ingredient — education.

Brand remarked that, “In 6th grade my teacher told me that I would end up in prison. I nearly fulfilled that prophesy a few years later.”

Lee Brand was indeed a problem child — arrested, out of control. Then the turnaround: military service, college education, family, business success and now Fresno’s chief executive.

He is one that has “been there, done that.”  

Many of our citizens both north and south of Shaw face the same circumstances. But how do we attempt to replicate Brand’s story?

The largest single influence to the economic foundation of Fresno is Fresno Unified School District — the state’s fourth largest with approximately 75,000 students.

To embrace Brand’s comments about uniting the whole community, intense attention needs to be focused on guaranteeing that these students and others have the tools to replicate at least part of his success.

But as Brand’s life was out of control, so, in many ways, is FUSD.

There is turmoil among teachers; a school board deadlocked; a superintendent recently fired with the all too familiar nationwide search for a replacement beginning.

The concern is that who in their right mind would want to come in to this kind of an environment? What quality prospect would leave where they are to walk into this perceived cesspool?

By the past actions of school board leadership, this dye has been cast — a bell rung that can’t be undone immediately.

This board must tackle the nearly impossible task of showing unity in vision, stability in action and reasonableness in decision-making.  

Putting the unified in Fresno Unified is going to be difficult. It’s going to take more than just one unanimous decision of the board (which recently hired an interim superintendent) to send a convincing message to future prospects. Welcome to an uphill challenge.

For too long we have just glanced at the impact of Fresno’s public school system.  If we truly want everyone to have the benefits of success, we must stay laser focused on what happens in public education.

Mistakes put us in this position. They say you can never make the same mistake twice. The second time makes it a choice.  

For the sake of our future, let’s not make it a choice.

Al Smith, former president and CEO of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, serves as a leadership coach for local companies as part of the John C. Maxwell leadership-training program. For more information, contact Smith at alsmith@alsmithpartners.com.

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