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Can Merced Schools Find a ‘Rock Star’ Superintendent? Here’s Where the Long Search Stands
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By The Merced Focus
Published 4 weeks ago on
March 27, 2024

Merced City Schools board is on the hunt for a new superintendent, aiming to bring stability and improve academic achievement in the district. (The Merced FOCUS/Christian De Jesus Betancourt)

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Merced City School District is approaching one year without a permanent superintendent as student achievement lags and the board of trustees struggles with its own internal governance issues.

Brianna Vaccari

The Merced Focus

A search firm posted an advertisement for the superintendent job last week. The person to fill the role will be the district’s fifth leader in four years.

The board’s goal is for the next superintendent to begin work July 1 – just before the new school year begins for 11,500 students and 1,400 staff across 18 schools.

The trustees are embarking on this new search at a time when the district faces a number of other hurdles.

Since the start of the year, the current five-member school board has participated in governance workshops in hopes of overcoming internal division.

Plus, the revolving door of superintendents and subsequent searches have left teachers feeling “hungover,” said Diane Pust, president of the Merced City Teachers Association.

Most importantly, student achievement continues to wane post pandemic.

Board Hopes to Turn a New Leaf

Board members acknowledge the path to this point has been rocky, but they hope to turn a new leaf from the current search crossroads and lead the district to stronger footing.

“This is also a lesson to show all our students,” said Priya Lakireddy, trustee for Area 1 in north Merced.

“It doesn’t matter what happened in the past. We have to come out of it and be strong, and I think that’s what we’re doing. We’re showing our students, our community, our staff, we can have differences, and one incident doesn’t define us, and we can move forward and look to the future.”

Board President Allen Brooks said the district hopes to find a long-term leader who will bring stability and a vision to improve the district’s academic achievement.

“As a board, collectively, we know that this is going to be one of the most important decisions that we make,” said Brooks, who represents Area 3.

“…That’s why we’re looking for a rock star. We know that turning around our district isn’t going to be a short-term thing. It’s a long-term thing.”

Pamphlets advertising Merced City Schools’ superintendent search are shown on a table during a recent board meeting. (The Merced FOCUS/Christian De Jesus Betancourt)

New Search Firm Hired

The school district hired the Cosca Group in November for $23,500 to conduct the current superintendent search. So far, the Cosca Group has facilitated stakeholder meetings, developed a recruitment brochure and posted the job advertisement across multiple online platforms.

The application is open until April 15, and the firm and board plan to conduct interviews in May, said Tim Ritter, one of two Cosca consultants leading the search. The board intends to hire someone by June so the new superintendent can assume their role July 1, the start of the new fiscal year and before the new school year begins.

“I’m excited to look into the future and get our school district a new superintendent,” Lakireddy said. “Based on my visits to all the schools that I’ve gone to so far, it’s very clear that everyone is looking for us to make that decision. So it’s incumbent that we make the decision in a timely fashion and be open and transparent about what we’re doing.”

Transparency about the search is an area that could use improvement, said Pust, the elected leader of a teacher’s union with 530 members.

“I keep getting the question, ‘Where are we at? What’s going on with this?’” Pust said about the current search underway. “I think people are just tired.”

Board president Brooks told CVJC he had not heard those types of concerns regarding the search, but he said the board would continue to provide updates to the public.

Rocky Past Year

The district has been without a consistent leader since longtime Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran retired in December 2019. Shortly after her successor took over in 2020, students transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic. Al Rogers, Parga Duran’s successor, resigned in 2021 amid sexual harassment allegations.

Since then, the board has gone through a new leader each year.

The most recent change in leadership occurred in April 2023 when the board fired Superintendent Diana Jimenez without cause after she was in the position for under a year. In the same meeting, the board appointed an acting superintendent, Brian Meisenheimer, who holds that role today.

The trustees voted 3-2 in September to terminate the contract with McPherson & Jacobson, the first search firm hired to find a new superintendent. Trustees Beatrice McCutchen and Lakireddy voted against the termination. The vote came with little explanation and to public dismay.

The vote came before McPherson & Jacobson could present the results of a community survey to the public and board.

However, the report found its way into the public realm after it was shared with Merced County Office of Education Superintendent of Schools Steve Tietjien.

The report highlighted what community members saw as positive attributes in the district. Community responses also included critical comments and allegations of inappropriate relationships between district personnel.

Brooks later explained the board majority’s decision about the search firm  in a letter to parents.  Brooks told CVJC the relationship between the board and search firm became fragmented, so they decided to terminate the contract and move forward with a different firm.

Memebers of the Merced City Schools Board of Trustees are shown during a recent meeting at the STEAM Center. (The Merced FOCUS/Christian De Jesus Betancourt)

Members of the Merced City Schools Board of Trustees are shown during a recent meeting at the STEAM Center. Photo by Christian De Jesus Betancourt/The Merced FOCUS

Board Division Evident

The McPherson & Jacobson report also included a number of comments from the community complaining about board dysfunction.

“If you watched our previous meetings, it’s clear that we didn’t really work cohesively as a board,” Lakireddy acknowledged. “This is just based off of my experience.”

The five-member school board is split 3-2 on many, if not most, issues. Trustees Lakireddy and McCutchen typically vote together in the dissent, while Trustees Brooks, Jessee Espinosa and Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell form the majority vote.

“It’s really hard to get anything done. There are times that there are meetings, and it’s just bickering back and forth,” Pust said. “(Teachers) are exhausted. We just want the board to learn how to govern. Again, everybody needs to focus on what is best for our community – for our students.”

To that end, the board voted in November to hire a consultant to conduct “governance” workshops.

Last week, in a district news release signed by Meisenheimer, officials said the workshops are an annual board practice designed to equip trustees with tools to “encourage productive discussions and meetings.”

The training covers subjects such as California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act, and communication methods such as listening before responding and protecting confidentiality.

“We’ve been able to educate ourselves as a board and get some more time under our belts as trustees and understanding our roles more,” Brooks said. “So it’s setting us up for more success when it comes to our school district and our kids.”

Lakireddy said she’s already learned a lot from the workshops, such as how to move a discussion forward after a disagreement.

Hope for Merced City Schools Board

Despite the board’s past clashes, Pust noted it does appear the board members are “learning to work together better.” For the good of parents, students and the district, she hopes that continues.

“We don’t want Merced to always be a drama or reality show, and at times, that’s what it feels like,” she said.

Trustees McCutchen and Olivarez-Kidwell declined to comment for this story. Trustee Espinosa did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Concerns Raised Over Student Performance

While the district’s elected officials have struggled to keep a chief executive, student outcomes have declined.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Merced City students struggled to meet California’s grade-level standards in reading and math. Post pandemic, when state standardized testing was suspended, scores in reading continue to decline.

In 2022, about one third of the district’s students met or exceeded grade-level standards for English and language arts, according to California Assessment of Student Performance (CAASP) results. That number fell last school year by about 2% to 31%.

The district’s math scores improved slightly within the last year, from 19% to 21% of students meeting grade-level benchmarks.

Brooks noted that Merced City isn’t the only school district to struggle with academic achievement – and literacy, in particular – post-pandemic.

“If you look at the test scores everywhere – every small city, every big city – it is the same outcome,” he said. “Literacy is definitely one of our main focuses, and we want to make sure that when our next leader comes in, they understand that too.”

The Merced FOCUS

Brown Act and Public Records

While the Board of Trustees continued conducting district business with acting and interim superintendents, education officials raised concerns about whether basic procedures were being followed during board meetings.

Last August, Tietjen, Merced County Superintendent of Schools, penned a memo to Brooks about a discrepancy between the online and printed agenda for a school board meeting. Tietjen said it was clear staff was directed to amend the agenda after the deadline to do so.

“I suggest you have legal counsel review procedural steps with the full board while the executive staff is present to insure this kind of error does not happen in the future,” Tietjen wrote.

“Remedies to Brown Act violations can be cumbersome and costly, not to mention the loss of public trust that is bound to occur when these kinds of discrepancies happen. I encourage cautiousness in the future.”

Documents Requested from Merced City Schools

During the course of the reporting for this story, CVJC requested a number of contracts from district officials, including the contract with The Cosca Group and the governance consultant.

Although the board voted to hire The Cosca Group during a public meeting, no contract was attached to the board agenda. As for the governance consultant, the firm’s name and a contract also were missing from the board agenda and minutes.

CVJC requested these documents from school officials via email, who promptly provided The Cosca Group contract.

However, after subsequent requests about the governance consultant and Brooks’ community letter, district officials declined to immediately provide the documents and requested the reporter file a public records request. As of Tuesday, March 26, CVJC still hadn’t received a response to its request.

About the Author

Brianna is the accountability and government watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.

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