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Recruiter Withdraws From 'Compromised' FUSD Superintendent Search
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By Edward Smith
Published 3 months ago on
April 5, 2024

Glendora-based Leadership Associates has withdrawn from Fresno Unified School District's superintendent search. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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The recruiting firm tasked by Fresno Unified to find the district’s new superintendent told board members it would not handle the next steps of the search, calling the process “compromised.”

Leadership Associates’ decision to exit was welcomed by School Board President Susan Wittrup, who said the district needs a search consultant that will provide top candidates “without any bias.”

Wittrup added that it was the consulting firm that “compromised” the process with an inaccurate report on what district families are seeking from the new superintendent.

A news release from Leadership Associates stated, “Despite initial clarity and transparency regarding the criteria and expectations for the superintendent selection process, Leadership Associates encountered discrepancies that compromised the integrity of the search. These misrepresentations, which deviated from the agreed-upon framework, ultimately led to the firm’s decision to step down from its role.”

In the lead-up to the special FUSD board of trustees meeting Wednesday, political leaders, the Fresno Teachers Association, parents, and business people spoke out against the decision to limit the search to internal candidates only.

However, Trustee Andy Levine from the Fresno High School area made a motion to hold the interviews. That motion failed, and the board paused the process, delaying interviews with the internal candidates.

Dennis Smith, search manager senior partner with Leadership Associates said the board decision undermined the process.

“Because of the pressure that was put to bear, the board changed at the 11th hour and sent everyone home. We don’t do business like that. We felt it lacked transparency and the level of integrity that we think is important in a confidential process like this,” Smith said.

During public comment on Wednesday, some speakers urged the district to fire Leadership Associates and conduct a nationwide or statewide search with a different firm.

FUSD Needs Search Firm Without Bias: FUSD Board President

Since its inception in 1996, Leadership Associates has recruited more than 650 superintendents, with a focus on California. Beyond recruiting, the organization provides executive training, including for several FUSD executives.

Fresno Unified paid the Glendora-based firm $40,000 to conduct community meetings and get a sense of what residents wanted in a superintendent.

Fresno Unified School Board President Susan Wittrup said the future of Fresno Unified students depends on the superintendent decision.

“We need a search firm that does not have any bias about potential candidates for the next superintendent and who can objectively bring the most qualified candidates forward,” Wittrup said Friday.

Board Didn’t Get the Whole Picture of What Community Wanted: Critics

The firm held 24 listening sessions in the latter part of February, according to FUSD spokeswoman Nikki Henry.

Of those, eight were public listening sessions. Others were held for city councilmembers, principals, teachers, labor unions, classified staff, and the FUSD executive cabinet.

They also held community sessions with the Latinx community, the Southeast Asian community, the African-American community, and the business community.

Smith said some had over 100 people in them. Others were not very well attended, Wittrup said. Leadership Associates provided the board with a six-page executive summary of what attendees told them.

“We felt the board had good information and that made their decision to go with the internal candidate review first,” Smith said. “And then they changed their mind.”

One of the priorities they noted was a desire for an internal candidate.

The Fresno Center hosted the meeting with the Southeast Asian community. Members of the Hmong and Laotian communities specifically called for the appointment of Deputy Superintendent Misty Her.

Many Hmong parents and students spoke at the Wednesday board meeting in support of the internal search process.

Other parents disagreed.

However, some parents who attended the Edison High and Bullard High listening sessions said they had expressly stated they wanted an outside candidate.

“While we requested someone who was familiar with Fresno, that should not limit the search to internal candidates only,” said Christina Soto in a letter to the FUSD board. Soto attended three Edison High meetings. “There is no doubt that this decision will guarantee that excellent potential candidates with roots in the Valley that are not currently employed with the district will be missed. It also completely ignores the community’s loud and clear demand for transparency.”

The executive summary to the board did not include those comments. Smith said he was not part of the listening process.

“Based on the overwhelming input from our community this past week — which Leadership Associates failed to capture and report from the listening sessions, their process was compromised,” Wittrup said.

Superintendent Pool a Tight One: Controversy Doesn’t Help Find Candidates

Finding a superintendent is a difficult process, Smith said. Usually, districts have a plan laid out to find a new superintendent. Long Beach Unified School District’s most recent superintendent hire started with a statewide search before hiring internally.

Considering Fresno Unified’s size, the pool of qualified candidates shrinks even more, he said.

Fresno Unified students have long tested below students in other districts in math and English. Smith said many candidates are eager to tackle that challenge.

Smith said the controversies at Fresno Unified could scare off a lot of candidates. He did note that such disputes are not unique to FUSD.

“The controversies are one of the things that dwindle the candidate pool oftentimes,” Smith said. “So when a community is going through a lot of controversy, board members arguing with one another … that dwindles the field more than anything else.”

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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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