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Here's a Look at the Firm Helping Fresno Unified Select Its Next Superintendent
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By David Taub, Senior Reporter
Published 3 weeks ago on
March 29, 2024

Fresno Unified hired consultant Leadership Associates to help find a new superintendent. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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A consulting firm that says it is the largest of its kind is helping Fresno Unified find a new superintendent.

With a $40,000 contract in hand, Leadership Associates is helping identify a replacement for Bob Nelson, who is leaving the district on July 31 to take a faculty job at Fresno State.

GV Wire education reporter Nancy Price reported that the school board is considering internal candidates only at this point. When it comes to the issue of whether the candidate should be hired from within, or an external search, that is up to the district, Leadership Associates lead partner Dennis Smith said.

“The board has the best insights of what they want to do. And so we want to support that. And we’ve done that both ways. And that’s not unusual for a district to make decisions internally,” Smith said.

If the school board opts for an outside candidate, Leadership Associates would help identify candidates as part of phase two of the contract.

When Nelson made his announcement on Jan. 22, Deputy superintendent Misty Her was named the district’s interim leader, when Nelson leaves in the summer. Sources tell GV Wire she is a top candidate for the full-time position.

The school board approved the contract 7-0 at its Feb. 21 meeting.

Who is Leadership Associates?

“We’re an executive search firm (and) executive leadership development firm,” Smith said. “We do a majority of the searches done by search firms in California, and we’re very active … helping (school boards) find quality superintendents and leaders.”

The company is formatted like an attorney’s office, with several partners and a five-member steering committee. Two partners have Central Valley ties — former Madera County Office of Education Superintendent Sally Frazier, and former Kings County Unified Superintendent Juan Garza.

On its website, Leadership Associates calls itself “California’s premier executive search and leadership development firm.” Smith said the firm has recruited more than 650 superintendents since its founding in 1996.

Smith said the firm works with about 25 school boards a year. The website lists 33 positions it is helping to recruit, ranging from superintendent to principal.

In addition to recruiting, the consultant provides several training and educational programs for leaders, audits, and services for school boards.

A testimonial on its website, attributed to Fresno Unified said: “Thank you to Leadership Associates for all your assistance in the process. As you know, only two of us were on the Board the last time a Superintendent was hired, and at that time, there was no search process. It was invaluable to have the assistance of a team that has experience in the selection of a Superintendent.”

District spokesperson Nikki Henry also praised the consultant group.

“Leadership Associates is a highly regarded executive search and leadership development firm in California and we have a long partnership with them for executive searches, executive coaching, and leadership development support,” Henry said.

Fresno Unified has contracted with Leadership Associates 25 times in the past five years, for recruitment and training services. Last year, the consultant recruited four executive level positions — Natasha Baker, Chief Academic Officer; Carlos Castillo, Chief, Equity and Access; Ambra O’Connor, Chief of Staff; and Patrick Jensen, Chief Financial Officer.

The Search Process

Smith said Leadership Associates has a network of candidates it calls on when they are hired to fill an opening.

The consultant will post the job on its website, which Smith said has thousands of subscribers. Anyone can read the job board list.

Leadership Associates will conduct stakeholder input, including meeting with the school board and community groups.

“We begin our recruitment and making contacts with people that we know throughout the state to just see what quality candidates might be there,” Smith said. “And then and then we will vet each candidate,” Smith said.

Vetting includes criminal background checks, Google searches, and social media searches. Smith said he does not want school boards to be “surprised.”

“Someone may look really good on paper, but they may have had an issue in the past district. And so, we’ll do all that vetting and, and the board decides who they want to interview,” Smith said.

The consultant will not only call listed references for a candidate, but others as well.

“When we present candidates to the board, we go through each candidate and talk about how they match up or don’t match up with the position description that was presented in and approved by the board,” Smith said.

Historically when a superintendent is fired from a job, the school district nor the board can say anything publicly because it is a personnel matter. But Leadership Associates say they know the real reason, mainly by talking directly with the candidate.

“(When) that superintendent puts the application in for another district, we know because we have a very strong conversation with that potential candidate,” Smith said.

Listening Sessions

The contract called for Leadership Associates to conduct community input, online surveys, Zoom sessions, and present the findings to the school board.

The consultant held 24 meetings, the district said — eight public sessions, plus meetings with Fresno city councilmembers, district principals, teachers, the labor union, and others.

A report to the district shared nine attributes desired in the new leader including experience, communication, and leadership.

Frazier and Garza, two of the consultant’s partners with Valley ties, helped write the report along with former Corona-Norco Unified School District superintendent Kent Bechler.

Because the contract was under Fresno Unified’s threshold of $109,000, it did not need to go out for public bid, Henry said.

Job Not Publicly Posted

Fresno Unified’s pending superintendent vacancy is not listed on Leadership Associates’ list of active searches. It is not even listed on the school district’s job posting page.

Nor does it need to be.

“There is no law requiring that a school district superintendent position be publicly posted. Posting is typically required for civil service positions but superintendents are usually not civil service employees; they usually are employed under an individual employment contract,” said labor relations expert Erich Shiners.

Shiners is a law professor at the University of the Pacific, focusing on labor law and the public sector, former member of the California Public Employment Relations Board, and textbook author.

Other legal experts agree.

“State law does not compel a school district to publicly post a vacant superintendent position. Additionally, it is not uncommon for school boards to hire a superintendent from within in lieu of publicly posting the position or conducting a search,” said Margaret Chidester, attorney and education professor at USC.

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David Taub,
Senior Reporter
Curiosity drives David Taub. The award-winning journalist might be shy, but feels mighty with a recorder in his hand. He doesn't see it his job to "hold public officials accountable," but does see it to provide readers (and voters) the information needed to make intelligent choices. Taub has been honored with several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. He's just happy to have his stories read. Joining GV Wire in 2016, Taub covers politics, government and elections, mainly in the Fresno/Clovis area. He also writes columns about local eateries (Appetite for Fresno), pro wrestling (Off the Bottom Rope), and media (Media Man). Prior to joining the online news source, Taub worked as a radio producer for KMJ and PowerTalk 96.7 in Fresno. He also worked as an assignment editor for KCOY-TV in Santa Maria, California, and KSEE-TV in Fresno. He has also worked behind the scenes for several sports broadcasts, including the NCAA basketball tournament, and the Super Bowl. When not spending time with his family, Taub loves to officially score Fresno Grizzlies games. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Taub is a die-hard Giants and 49ers fan. He graduated from the University of Michigan with dual degrees in communications and political science. Go Blue! You can contact David at 559-492-4037 or at Send an Email

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