Fresno Unified board says longtime contractor no longer eligible for district projects

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The Fresno Unified School District says it can no longer employ a longtime local contractor.

The trustees voted unanimously Monday night to prohibit construction contracts from being awarded to Lewis C. Nelson and Sons, Inc.

After decades of working with Fresno Unified and winning bids on school projects, Lewis C. Nelson and Sons, Inc. found itself facing unfamiliar rejection.

"It's not right, it's not fair," said Michael Schoenfeld, the attorney representing the company. "And what it will do is remove a significant player in the competition in this industry."

For the past 15 years, Lewis C. Nelson and Sons, Inc. has consistently been one of the district's lowest bidders - netting 60 percent of Fresno Unified's construction money.

But trustees say that relationship has to come to an end now because of the company's ties to board president Brooke Ashjian.

"Well nobody knows - five, 10, 20 years ago - that somebody is ultimately going to run for election," Schoenfeld said.

State law says no one who has done business with a school board member within five years can bid on projects, and Ashjian was elected in 2014. And in 2013, Ashjian's company served as a subcontractor to Lewis C. Nelson and Sons, Inc.

"It's a heavy heart, a very heavy heart, to tell someone that they aren't eligible to do the work at a price we've agreed on," trustee Valerie F. Davis said.

The conflict of interest came to light when the company recently bid on another project - a $1.64 million offer to repair Royce Hall at Fresno High School.

The company filed a protest to the initial rejection, but then a hearing officer rejected the appeal too.

"This is a result of unintended consequences that's going to reek substantial harm to a lot," Schoenfeld said.

School board trustees sounded sympathetic, and admitted projects would cost more as a result. But they say the law tied their hands.

"It's a lamentable situation, and I wish we weren't in this situation," trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas said. "However, with my colleagues, I have to agree with the hearing officer's decision."

Lewis C. Nelson and Sons, Inc. have filed a lawsuit and are still waiting to hear when a court date will be set.
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