Bob Nelson, currently one of Fresno’s and California’s longest-serving school superintendents, is resigning from Fresno Unified School District to take a tenure-track faculty position at Fresno State’s Kremen School of Education, sources tell GV Wire.
Nelson’s last day with Fresno Unified will be July 31.
Nelson did not immediately respond to a request for comment from GV Wire on his career move Monday morning.
In a news release released later Monday morning by the district, Nelson called his job as Fresno Unified’s superintendent “the pinnacle of my career thus far.”
Nelson said he was grateful to have had the opportunity to serve the children of Fresno, and added, “I am thankful to have the opportunity to land in a future position where I can continue serving Valley educators as well.”
The district said in the news release that Deputy Superintendent Misty Her will serve as interim superintendent if Nelson’s replacement has not been named by July 31.
In an messaged emailed to staffers that Nelson later posted on Facebook, he said he was looking forward to returning to the classroom and his first love, teaching.
“Please know that I did not arrive at this decision easily. … I have appreciated so very much getting to know you and having the daily opportunity to serve our amazing city and its children.
“Sincere thanks to all of you who provided support and who saw our district through three labor contracts as well as a pandemic over my tenure here.”
His tenure as superintendent was marked by two averted teacher strikes, including one in October, parent protests over virtual instruction during the pandemic even after other districts had reopened schools to classes, community protests over racist cheerleaders, school names, and school mascots, calls to split the district in half, concerns about school safety, and continued poor results in students’ academic performance.
His job was complicated by the antics of Terry Slatic, who served one term as the Bullard Area trustee and who was twice censured by his fellow board members.
Nelson was at the helm when voters approved the latest in a series of bond measures that have paid for new schools like Juan Felipe Herrera Elementary and the Farber Educational Complex now under construction. Over the past seven years, the district’s budget ballooned into the billion-dollar range while maintaining a healthy amount of “rainy day” reserves, even as student enrollments have steadily decreased.
College and career preparation has been a key focus for Nelson, who oversaw the opening of a heavy-truck maintenance facility and the preparations for an aviation school. Fresno Unified partnered with Fresno State on the “Bulldog Bound” program guaranteeing admission for students who meet admission standards, and a dual enrollment program with an HCBU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) partner.
Nelson, whose prowess on the ukulele was documented in YouTube videos, was praised for his relentless cheerfulness but also criticized for his self-proclaimed “militant positivity,” part of his effort to counter the negativity associated with the district.
School Board President Susan Wittrup, who defeated Slatic in 2022 in the Bullard Area election, credited Nelson with improving conditions for students to thrive, including providing each student with a laptop and access to Wi-Fi, and bringing a spirit of optimism and positivity to the district at a time when employee morale was “historically low.”
Under his leadership, the district’s focus included nutritious meals for students, improving students’ social-emotional supports, and adding programs such as winter camps so students could keep learning between semesters, Wittrup said.
In addition, she said, he “successfully navigated the district through two potential teachers’ strikes and a pandemic. Today, the district is financially sound with healthy reserves.”
Hoover Area Trustee Claudia Cazares said Nelson brought about a much-needed culture change that was contributing to improvement in student academic performance prior to the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, Nelson made students the top priority, she said.
His role as a peacemaker might not have been as obvious to the public, Cazares said.
“He was able to consolidate the board at every turn, even with some of the toughest trustees that we had,” she said. “He was a great peacemaker and able to make the trustees see where a middle ground was, sometimes when the trustees couldn’t see the middle ground.”
Nelson oversaw the implementation of projects such as the Hmong dual immersion classes, which was a “huge, heavy lift,” Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas said. The expansion of language programs, the elimination of the after-school program waitlist, and the creation of an alternative education campus, the Farmer campus, on the site of the old juvenile hall all happened on Nelson’s watch, she said.
Watch: 2019 Interview With Nelson on FUSD’s Challenges
Taking the Top Job
Nelson was Superintendent Michael Hanson’s chief of staff when he was tapped to replace the beleaguered Hanson as interim superintendent in February 2017. He took on the job permanently seven months later.
He had previously worked for the district as a teacher, vice principal, principal, and human resources administrator. Nelson left the district for a few years to serve as superintendent for Chawanakee Unified in Madera County but then returned to work under Hanson.
Board Clerk Valerie Davis, the board’s longest-serving trustee, said there have been only two superintendents during her tenure, Hanson and Nelson, which is noteworthy since most big-city school superintendents tend to serve only for three years before moving on. Davis said that stability of leadership has been beneficial as the district seeks to address problems of student achievement, school safety, and other issues.
But the district’s search for superintendents in 2004 and 2016 were complicated by the crises then underway: In 2004 Fresno Unified was on the brink of a state takeover because of its wobbly finances, and in 2016 morale was at a nadir.
This time around there’s no looming crisis. “I’m personally proud that the superintendent has been able to lead us to a place where he’s leaving, not in the midst of chaos, bu in a stable place on his own terms,” Jonasson Rosas said. “And, we have that ability to really think through what the next step is, that maybe in other instances we weren’t afforded.
“So it’s going to be important conversations with our board and with the community as to the next step. And so I really hope to have those opportunities to engage with the community.”
Many Students Still Lag Behind
Fresno Unified consistently ranked near the bottom for years among the nation’s biggest cities in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report, which conducts biannual testing of 4th and 8th graders in reading and math. After 2019, the district stopped participating in the NAEP.
It hasn’t fared any better on the state’s report card, the California School Dashboard, which uses color coding to show increases or decreases in academic performance, attendance, discipline, and other areas.
In 2017, Fresno students tested 48.2 points below meeting basic standards for reading and 69.6 points below standard in math. The district made gradual progress each year and by 2019, students were testing at 34.1 points below standard in reading and 62.1 points below standard in math.
But Fresno Unified, like most school districts nationwide, saw student academic performance plummet during and after the pandemic. In 2023, Fresno students tested at 49.8 points below standard in English and 80.6 points below standard in math.
The district has consistently been below the state average. In 2018 the state average was 6 points below standard in reading and 36.4 points below standard in math; by 2023 the state average was 13.6 points below standard in reading and 49.1 points below standard in math.
Takes Bold Step with Literacy Initiative
Last April, Nelson announced the launching of the district’s ambitious Literacy Initiative, which sets the goal of each child reading at grade level by the end of first grade.
And Nelson made it clear that for the district to meet its goal, the entire community would need to be on board.
“Can we help our community realize really there’s nothing more important?” he told GV Wire in April. “Can we just agree, reading is the fundamental for everything? It is the No. 1 way to thrive in our society and as people.”
In a 2019 question-and-answer with GV Wire, Nelson acknowledged the political pressures of serving as superintendent of California’s then fourth-largest (and now third-largest) school district.
“We call it Any Given Wednesday. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about being (fired). On some given Wednesday, in all likelihood, I will be blown out at some point. In the meantime, I want to do everything I can to move the ball as far as I possibly can. Superintendent (Michael) Hanson, before me, put the structure in place. My job is to build the culture, and the person behind me can knock it out of the park.
“So, when I’ve overstayed my welcome on whatever Wednesday it will be, I can look in the mirror and say you’ve put in a good effort on behalf of the city.”
Wittrup said the next superintendent will need to advance the district upward and have a laser focus.
Nelson “built the foundation for what must come next in Fresno Unified,” she said. “His replacement will need a different skillset, one that infuses innovation with urgency, accountability, and the capacity to improve instruction and academic outcomes for all of our students.”
Cazares said that “there’s always room for change, always room to do something a little bit better. We’ll be looking for a new superintendent that provides us that opportunity.”
Davis said she wants the next superintendent to continue the work already underway to boost students’ academic performance and literacy.
“I’m looking at someone who is laser-focused on knowing the workings of our district and knowing how imperative it is to get those little guys really started off on the right foot,” she said.
Wittrup, Davis, and Jonasson Rosas all acknowledged that there have been calls for the next superintendent to reflect the diversity of the community, and they said that will be a factor in their considerations.
“Of course, diversity and representation matter,” Jonasson Rosas said. “I think what’s most important is finding the right person for the job, for them to be qualified and be the right leader to move us forward in this moment, for having the qualifications, the ability to work with us as a board, identify priorities and move forward.
“Being the superintendent of Fresno Unified isn’t just a role that about setting standards and curriculum and all that. It’s about interfacing with our community and our partners and our families and our kids, and being that sort of role model and head that people can look up to and have some faith in the institution just like they do to the board. So, it’s very important that people can see themselves. But I would say it’s more important that the person be the right person for Fresno Unified.”
Nelson’s departure was noted in a tweet on the social media site X by Bobby Kahn, a former State Center Community College District, who congratulated him on his new job and his service to Fresno Unified.
Great job, Bob. Your steady hand will be missed. Wishing you the best in your next career venture. #leadership
— Bobby Kahn (@bobby_kahn) January 22, 2024