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Fresno School Board Reverses Course on Superintendent Search, Cancels Interviews
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By Nancy Price, Multimedia Journalist
Published 2 weeks ago on
April 3, 2024

The Fresno Unified School Board voted 5-2 to pause its interviews of internal candidates and mount an expansive search before a packed chamber Wednesday, April 3, 2024. (GV Wire Composite/Eric Martinez)

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The Fresno Unified School Board voted 5-2 Wednesday night to table its scheduled interviews of internal candidates for the position of superintendent and to embark on a widespread search.

Trustees Veva Islas and Andy Levine had asked to have the board proceed with Wednesday’s scheduled interviews, reportedly with three current employees. When that request failed, they voted against the motion to table.

Islas and Levine also were on the losing side of the board’s agreement last month to interview only internal candidates. The two and Board President Susan Wittrup had sought the district to consider candidates statewide.

The board later emerged after an extended closed session to announce that no action had been taken, but that the board will be re-evaluating its path forward on the superintendent search.

The board’s vote came ahead of more than an hour of spirited and at times emotional public comment from some community members who said that the board had ignored their request to widen the search and for transparency, and from members of the Hmong community who were concerned that the pushback to interviewing only internal candidates was a symptom of racism.

Deputy Superintendent Misty Her, one of the highest-ranking Hmong-American public school administrators in the nation, was reported to be one of the candidates with an inside track on replacing outgoing Superintendent Bob Nelson.

Deputy Superintendent Misty Her, left, talks with Wendy McCulley, president/executive director of the Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools, before the Wednesday, April 3, 2024, special board meeting. (GV Wire/ Eric Martinez)

Where’s Nelson?

Nelson was notably absent from the meeting, which drew one of the biggest crowds of audience members since the pandemic. He was with Battelle for Kids, a partnership with the district that he was previously committed to attending, district spokeswoman Nikki Henry said.

Some of the most stinging criticism was leveled against the board members for how they conducted the superintendent search, reliance on a consultant that provided incomplete information about community listening sessions, and then deciding last month to interview only internal candidates.

That decision resulted in a groundswell of growing public opposition that culminated Tuesday morning in a news conference on the steps of the downtown Education Center by a coalition of local lawmakers, labor and business representatives, the teachers union, a retired judge, and Board President Susan Wittrup.

Celedon: Board ‘Royally Fumbled’ the Search

Sandra Celedon, president and CEO of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, said she was speaking to the board Wednesday as a disappointed parent of a Fresno Unified student. Celedon said the board’s action was doomed almost from the start because they had failed to put together a plan and follow it. And Celedon said she felt sorry for Her, who if she is selected as the district’s next superintendent will be “forever tainted.”

“I just want to reiterate that the most significant work of the board and the only employee that you ever hire is the superintendent. And I am very disappointed in how royally you fumbled that process from the gate because of your actions today and your failure to actually executing your primary job,” she said.

“You are clearly winging it, and you are clearly not setting yourself up for success because you’re not hiring the support that you need. And so whether you want to blame your consultant or not, at the end of the day, you hired those consultants because I can tell you that I would have fired those consultants on Day Two.”

Community activist Stacy Williams accused the board members of putting politics ahead of their duty to select the best-qualified candidate for the job. Limiting the search and shrouding it in secrecy was an attempt to go through the back door for political gain, she said.

Finalists Should Share Vision for District in Public Forum: FTA President

Teachers union President Manuel Bonilla congratulated the board for deciding to hit the pause button and restart their process, but it could take some time and hard work on the part of the board to regain the community’s trust. That will include taking the time to talk to the community members about their vision for the district’s future.

“This is not about one interview, this is about process,” he said.

Bonilla said he was encouraged to hear that the board members are considering involving community members in the selection process, but in the spirit of full transparency the finalist candidates should talk about their vision for the district in a public forum.

Hmong Community Members Say Racism at Work

Members of the Hmong community leveled some of their criticism against the board for wanting to look outside the district when qualified candidates were already on hand. A group of Edison High students expressed concern that the board was pressured to veer toward widening the search when it was clear that the internal candidates were all people of color.

Wittrup continued to be targeted by Sanger Unified Trustee Va Her, who accused her of racism and insensitivity. A Sanger Unified spokesman said earlier Wednesday that Va Her’s comments were not endorsed by the district or its governing board.

At Wednesday’s meeting Va Her, who said he speaking as a representative of the Hmong Business Incubator Center, said he would welcome speaking to her on the phone to review a chronology of news articles in which Misty Her was accused of nepotism.

 

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Nancy Price,
Multimedia Journalist
Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email

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