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Exec at Failing FUSD Inserts Herself Into Superintendent Debate, Challenges Search Pause
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By Edward Smith
Published 3 months ago on
April 5, 2024
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Fresno Unified School District's Assistant Superintendent Annarita Howell speaks at Wednesday's special board of trustees meeting, advocating for internal candidates. (GV Wire/Jahz Tello)

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At Fresno Unified’s special board meeting Wednesday, the district’s lead human resources officer advocated for an internal-only superintendent search, saying the candidates — all of whom apparently are people of color — aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

Assistant Superintendent of Labor Relations Annarita Howell said as the district’s human resources officer, the decision by the board to pause the superintendent search “concerned” her.

“I’m kind of concerned about the internal candidates are considered minorities and people of color but they are not being given an opportunity to interview at this point as was scheduled, coming from an immigrant family myself also as a second-language learner, raised in the Fresno Unified school system, Howell said.

“I wonder if I could have ever stood a chance to become a superintendent in our district being a minority female with (what) seems to be a glass ceiling limiting my professional growth walking in the hallway and only looking at pictures of males.”

Howell said that the district had a “succession plan” in place for Nelson’s replacement, as well as a “tough culture of accountability.”

“Why question that succession planning now? Howell stated to the board.

Catching Up on the FUSD Superintendent Debacle

The board scheduled the special meeting to conduct interviews with internal candidates for the superintendent position being vacated by Bob Nelson in July.

Political leaders, labor representatives, and parents vocally opposed limiting the search to internal candidates. Large numbers also turned out to back a limited in-house search, including Hmong Americans who had advocated at previous listening sessions for Deputy Superintendent Misty Her to be promoted to superintendent.

A news conference calling for an expanded search was held Tuesday with FUSD Board president Susan Wittrup, four Fresno City Councilmembers, Fresno Teacher Association President Manuel Bonilla, a retired former Fresno County Superior Court judge, a representative from Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula’s office, and Granville Homes CEO Darius Assemi.

Assemi is the publisher of GV Wire.

The board will now decide how to move forward with their superintendent search.

Did Bob Nelson Deserve Glowing Reviews?

Before the public comment period, the board voted 5-2 to suspend the interviews planned for that day and come up with a new strategy to hire a superintendent.

Throughout her allotted time, Howell identified herself as an assistant superintendent. Wishon Elementary School teacher Darlene Lee also gave Howell her time, extending Howell’s time to nearly twice that of other speakers.

Howell was speaking as an individual, according to Nikki Henry, chief communications officer for FUSD.

Howell said that Nelson —with Misty Her as his deputy superintendent for the past three years —had positive reviews during his seven-year tenure.

“Each year, superintendent Nelson received a positive evaluation and now we are divisive — divisive of this practice and divisive of the outcomes, but it was never reflected in his verbal, transparent evaluation,” Howell said.

Others called out Nelson’s performance, saying literacy rates and test scores trailed the state average and neighboring school districts.

Fresno Unified has long tested below statewide averages in math and English.

Only 33.2% of FUSD students met or exceeded English standardized test scores in the 2022-23 school year, compared to 46.66% statewide. In math, only 23.31% of students met standardized test scores, compared to 34.6% in California.

Stacy Williams, a community activist, brought up the district’s dismal educational attainment and a 2023 teacher strike averted at the last minute.

“Under your leadership and Bob’s leadership, we said as a community not to give him a glowing review and you did it anyway,” Williams said. “Our metrics are failing, we are one of the worst districts in the state. To sit up here and some woman say you gave him a glowing review, our kids can’t read.”

Charts show Fresno Unified students’ poor English and math test results in comparison to other school districts. (GV Wire)

Are FUSD’s Internal Candidates an Open Secret?

The district hasn’t spoken about the number of in-house candidates, revealed their names, or released information about their backgrounds.

However, during the meeting, Howell identified the in-house candidates as people of color. In addition, speakers identifying themselves as Edison High School students stated there were three in-house candidates and, as did Howell, said they were all people of color.

“When you have three people of color on hold to potentially be superintendent and the board is considering seeking new persons from other school districts, this makes me wonder why they’re seeking people in other districts when three people running are the most reasonable people to be superintendents for Fresno Unified,” said Kimberly Vang, an Edison High School student.

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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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