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Corrupt Process? Bullard, Edison Parents Blast Handling of Superintendent Search
gvw_edward_smith
By Edward Smith
Published 2 weeks ago on
March 27, 2024

A report to the Fresno Unified School School Board said an internal search is a priority for community members. Attendees at Edison and Bullard listening sessions say that isn't true. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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Parents who attended so-called “listening sessions” ahead of Fresno Unified’s superintendent search say a consultant didn’t note their desire for a leader from outside the district and, in some cases, steered the conversation toward hiring an internal candidate.

“As the president of the board, I should be able to review the notes that went into our job description, that just seems incredibly corrupt to me. So, none of these actions inspire confidence or demonstrate a transparent and professional process, which is what they’re being paid for with public money to practice.” — Fresno Unified School Board President Susan Wittrup

This revelation comes with the superintendent’s search mired in controversy after a narrow majority of district trustees decided not to mount a nationwide or statewide search for Bob Nelson’s successor.

“The listening sessions were poorly attended in general,” said School Board President Susan Wittrup, who represents the Bullard region. “But, if the theme of looking beyond internal candidates was left out of reports to the board, that describes a corrupt process, and I won’t be sugarcoating that for constituents who had a legitimate expectation their voices would be captured.”

Wittrup was joined by trustees Veva Islas (McLane) and Andy Levine (Fresno) in pushing for a more expansive search.

However, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas (Roosevelt) Keshia Thomas (Edison),  Claudia Cazares (Hoover), and Valerie Davis (Sunnyside) prevailed with their direction to limit the initial search to internal candidates.

Although district officials haven’t disclosed the internal candidates for the position, multiple district sources have told GV Wire that interim Superintendent Misty Her is considered the frontrunner. Calls to Her to speak about the selection process and her interest in the job have not been returned.

Jonasson Rosas Says Community Wants a Leader With Local Ties

Jonasson Rosas says the community desires someone with Valley ties to be the next superintendent.

“There were several qualities and several attributes that the community really wants to see in the next superintendent. Local knowledge is important, as indicated, knowledge of California practices, knowledge of our community, and our demographics.” — Fresno Unified Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas

“There were several qualities and several attributes that the community really wants to see in the next superintendent,” Rosas told GV Wire. “Local knowledge is important, as indicated, knowledge of California practices, knowledge of our community, and our demographics.”

Jonasson Rosas would not say why she and three other trustees decided to limit its superintendent search to internal candidates. The decision was made in closed session.

However, one of the priorities in the summary report prepared by Leadership Associates, which was contracted to do the community listening sessions, states that internal candidates are to be preferred.

The consultants didn’t record the sessions, Nikki Henry, chief communications officer with FUSD, told GV Wire.

Wittrup Wants Notes From Bullard Listening Session

Wittrup says differing accounts of community input from attendees and meeting coordinators invalidate the information the board used to decide on March 20 to keep the superintendent search internal. What’s more, the consulting group won’t provide her with the notes from the meeting for her area, Wittrup said.

On Feb. 21, the FUSD board of education approved paying Leadership Associates $40,000 for a series of public listening sessions on what the community wants in a new superintendent.

Leadership Associates’ report was delivered to the School Board 24 hours before the March 20 vote, even though trustees had asked for a few days to review the job description the company created for Nelson’s successor. Nelson’s last day is July 31.

“As the president of the board, I should be able to review the notes that went into our job description, that just seems incredibly corrupt to me,” Wittrup said. “So, none of these actions inspire confidence or demonstrate a transparent and professional process, which is what they’re being paid for with public money to practice.”

Miguel Arias, a Fresno City Councilmember and former trustee with State Center Community College District, said listening sessions are typically recorded.

Wittrup said that for $40,000, the listening sessions should come with a recording. When the job description finally arrived, she said, it was full of errors —misspelling her name and leaving out another board member’s name, for example.

A message from a Bullard area parent to Fresno Unified School Board President Susan Wittrup. (Special to GV Wire)

Bullard and Edison Parents Want to Look Beyond the District

Arias, who attended the listening session for Edison High School said no one advocated for a search limited to internal candidates. Arias said the consultants tried to steer the conversation toward an internal applicant but none of the attendees engaged with them.

Portrait of Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias

“The search consultants tried to, on a few occasions, steer the conversation to an internal applicant and members of the public did not engage.” — Fresno City Councilmember and Fresno Unified parent Miguel Arias

“That was a clear preference of the search committee and the search consultants,” Arias said. “The search consultants tried to, on a few occasions, steer the conversation to an internal applicant and members of the public did not engage. Internal applicants were suggested by the consultant.”

One parent at the Bullard High School listening session who did not want to be named wrote to Wittrup stating that they and others were clear about not hiring from within. That parent has a child in the Bullard area. Another parent sent a similar message to the board in general.

“I wanted to say that I was at the Bullard Region meeting and every single person there was very clear about not hiring from within,” stated the letter to Wittrup. “We were all aligned in that we want change. We cannot thrive if we are in line with the same people running the district.”

Debbie Darden, chair of the Golden Westside Planning Commission and a former School Board candidate, also attended the Edison meeting. She told GV Wire she expressed her desire for someone outside the district so that the proposed solutions to problems confronting Edison High students would not be more of the same.

“You have 70,000 kids, and over 20 years the Fresno Unified School system has continued to run off that same systematic outline that they have within the school that just hasn’t done anything for some of the students,” said Darden, who successfully advocated for building Gaston Middle School and Fresno City College’s satellite campus in west Fresno.

“And so, it should have been open nationwide so that you could look for these strong points.”

Leadership Associates Screened Out Top-Tier Candidates for State Center Search: Arias

Glendora-based Leadership Associates is known throughout the California education community.

It’s currently running at least 19 active superintendent searches for educational agencies, according to its website. And, Chief Financial Officer Mark Ecker advised then-Gov. Jerry Brown during the creation of the Local Control Funding Formula — a landmark legislation that fundamentally changed how education agencies receive funding.

The organization is well known in Fresno Unified as well. Over the past five years, there have been 25 contracts between the company and FUSD. These include search contracts, coaching contracts, and leadership development contracts.

One of Leadership Associates’ key tenets is “after our meetings with the Board, staff and community, we advertise and actively recruit both statewide and nationally,” according to the group’s report to Rincon Valley Unified School District.

Asked about how Fresno Unified came to focus entirely on internal candidates, Eric Andrew, a partner with Leadership Associates, said, “Each district decides how they intend to fill a superintendent vacancy.”

Andrew did not respond to other questions from GV Wire.

When State Center Community College District contracted with Leadership Associates to fill the position after longtime president Tony Cantu died, the State Center board declared a failed search because the consulting group had screened out top-tier applicants from outside the system, Arias said. Arias was a State Center trustee at the time.

After declaring a failed search, the board contracted with a different firm and selected Carole Goldsmith. Goldsmith served as president until November 2021 when she became chancellor of State Center Community College District.

The Next Superintendent’s Challenge

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.

“You have this repetitiveness that goes on by searching inside. And so, when you’re looking inside if this has been systemic for so long, what has changed from somebody coming from internal to that position?” — Southwest Fresno education advocate Debbie Darden

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.

Jonasson Rosas said that board members want someone who can address academic issues throughout the district.

“We need a leader that’s going to take our kids to the next level in terms of academics,” Rosas said. The board is also facing a budget shortage and will need to cut, she said.

Darden said looking only from within limits solutions to those the district has tried.

“You have this repetitiveness that goes on by searching inside,” Darden said. “And so, when you’re looking inside if this has been systemic for so long, what has changed from somebody coming from internal to that position?”

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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