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What's Next in Fresno Superintendent Search? That's the Great Unknown.
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By Edward Smith
Published 2 months ago on
April 9, 2024

The search for Fresno Unified School District's new superintendent is on pause with the next steps yet to be formulated. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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Nearly a week after Fresno Unified school board members paused their superintendent search, the trustees have yet to formulate a plan to choose Superintendent Bob Nelson’s replacement.

Following the board’s 5-2 decision on April 3 to hit pause on interviews in the search for Nelson’s successor, a closed session item at Wednesday’s board meeting will allow the board to discuss potential plans, according to board president Susan Wittrup.

FUSD Board Meeting

Time/Date: 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 10

Place: District Headquarters, 2309 Tulare St., downtown Fresno

However, Wittrup said that nothing specific to the search was planned for the meeting. Still, trustees could discuss what comes next in the hunt for what some residents have described as the most important single job in Fresno County.

A week ago, the trustees responded to public calls from parents and political leaders to take a break from a search that focused on in-house candidates.

“Given the community feedback we received in regards to some of the lacking comments out of our community that we’ve received, I’d like to make the following motion (to pause) with your indulgence,” said Trustee Claudia Cazares, who represents the Hoover High area.

Trustees Wittrup, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Keisha Thomas, and Valerie Davis joined Cazares in voting yes. Trustees Veva Islas and Andy Levine asked to have the board proceed with interviews scheduled that night with district candidates. When that request failed, they voted against Cazares’ motion to table.

What Does the District Have for a Plan?

After the vote, Assistant Superintendent of Labor Relations Annarita Howell said that the board’s pause had upended a long-standing succession planning strategy.

Howell said the internal candidates who were ready to be interviewed that night understood the intricacies of the areas they serve. She said the board had approved a policy of developing leaders from within the district.

“My wondering is why we question that succession planning now we have been planning for the last 10 years?” Howell said at the meeting.

But the initial decision to keep the search internal deviated from the last time the board chose a superintendent in 2017. As chief of staff to then-Superintendent Michael Hanson, Nelson beat out 24 other candidates in a nationwide search.

When GV Wire asked the district to see the succession planning documents referenced by Howell on April 3, district spokeswoman Nikki Henry said succession planning is an ongoing process through the human resources department.

Henry also said that succession planning is a personnel issue and “likely confidential.” The district has not fulfilled GV Wire’s Public Record Act request for the planning succession documents.

Though Howell said in her public comments last week that she was speaking as an “assistant superintendent,” Henry told GV Wire that Howell spoke as a private citizen. Henry also said that she couldn’t say how the board’s decision to pause the in-house interviews deviated from the board’s succession plan.

How Transparent is FUSD Process?

Until community members asked the board to wide the superintendent search, the district had kept the process behind closed doors. Without Cazares’ motion for a delay, the board would have held interviews that evening.

The day before, on April 2, a news conference calling for a wider search was held by Wittrup. The attendees included Fresno Teachers Association President Manuel Bonilla, four Fresno City Councilmembers, a representative from Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula’s office (D-Fresno), retired judge Robert Oliver, and Granville Homes CEO Darius Assemi.

Assemi is the publisher of GV Wire.

“The selection of our new superintendent is a decision that impacts every student, every parent, every educator, and every member of our community. Instead of treating this decision with the respect and transparency that it deserves, a narrow board majority is compromising the integrity of the process and creating the appearance that politics matters more than our students. This is deeply troubling,” Bonilla said.

Other speakers pointed to Fresno Unified’s poor test scores, low academic achievement, and high student absenteeism.

The public outreach portion of the search process was finished within 10 days. A contract with search firm Leadership Associates’ contract was approved on Feb. 21 and the community listening sessions mostly finished by March.

Wittrup said many of the meetings were poorly attended. And, parents from multiple high schools wrote letters to the board calling for a broader search. Wittrup also said that reports from Leadership Associates did not provide a complete picture of what parents wanted.

When the board originally voted March 20 to keep the search internal, it took calling every single board member by GV Wire education reporter Nancy Price to learn the board was tightly divided on the matter.

Wittrup and Islas told Price before the meeting they wanted to broaden the search. Levine then told Price after the meeting he also supported a wider search. Other board members either didn’t respond or were noncommittal.

Thus, Price was able to accurately deduce that the four trustees — Thomas, Jonasson Rosas, Davis, and Cazares — must have favored keeping matters in-house.

Other Districts More Transparent in Their Top Searches

When Long Beach Unified found its new superintendent in 2020, the board publicly laid out a plan that included community input on selecting candidates, according to the Press Telegram.

Closer to home, State Center Community College District board held interviews in closed session to replace then-Fresno City College President Carole Goldsmith. But when the field was narrowed to four after a nationwide search, public forums were held with the candidates.

The board ultimately chose Robert Pimentel, then-vice president of educational services and institutional effectiveness at Fresno City College.

It wasn’t public knowledge how many internal Fresno Unified candidates there even were until students from Edison High School said during the April 3 public comment there were three.

Some Facts Come to Light

Dennis Smith, partner and search lead for Leadership Associates confirmed to GV Wire that there were three in-house candidates for superintendent. In addition, Howell, the district’s human resources leader, identified the finalists during public comment as “people of color.”

“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.

As GV Wire reported last week, Smith said Leadership Associates had withdrawn from participating in Fresno Unified’s expanded search. Smith said that the decision to not interview the internal candidates last week “compromised” the process.

But Wittrup countered that Leadership Associates had compromised the process by providing an inaccurate report of what district families said at community listening sessions.

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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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