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Flipping the Script: Board Majority Supports Wide Search for Fresno Superintendent
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By Nancy Price, Multimedia Journalist
Published 4 weeks ago on
May 1, 2024
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The Fresno Unified School Board voted 5-2 Wednesday, Aril 3, to pause scheduled interviews with internal candidates for the superintendent’s job and to embark on a widespread search.

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

Voting to pause the interviews and expand the district’s search for Bob Nelson’s successor: Board President Susan Wittrup and trustees Claudia Cazares, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas, Keisha Thomas, and Valerie Davis.

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 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 and had an inside track on replacing Nelson.

Nelson was absent from the meeting and was with Battelle for Kids, a partnership with the district that he was previously committed to attending, district spokeswoman Nikki Henry said.

Back to the Original Story

A coalition of local lawmakers, labor representatives, teachers union leadership, and a retired judge joined Fresno Unified Board President Susan Wittrup Tuesday morning to make an 11th-hour appeal to the School Board to widen the search for a new superintendent beyond internal candidates.

Changes are urgently needed in Fresno Unified, the state’s third largest school district. It is imperative that the Fresno Unified governing board members do not shortcut the search process. … While there may be strong internal candidates for this important job, a thorough, thoughtful, and transparent national search must be conducted.” — Statement from Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno

Although the group holding a news conference on the steps of the district’s Education Center in downtown Fresno included enough Fresno City councilmembers to constitute a quorum, Wittrup was the only one of the seven School Board members present.

Wittrup was one of three board members last month who voted in closed session last month not to limit consideration to internal candidates. Trustees Veva Islas and Andy Levine told GV Wire that they supported a statewide search for the new superintendent.

But at least one of the trustees who voted with the majority appears to have had a change of heart. Trustee Claudia Cazares posted on her Facebook page Tuesday morning that she had heard the community’s concerns about limiting the search process: “Given the strong pull towards opening the search nationwide, I requested that we move in that direction as well several days ago. I understand the immense consequences of the decision, and the decision making process should be as transparent as we can be. I had originally asked Board leadership for a community committee that would assist us in the superintendent search, I hope that Board President would reconsider my recommendation.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 5 p.m. Wednesday to interview one or more internal candidates and then possibly vote to appoint the successor to outgoing Superintendent Bob Nelson, who is leaving the district for a faculty job at Fresno State. Deputy Superintendent Misty Her reportedly has an inside track on the job.

Islas was unaware of Cazares’ Facebook post and apparent change of heart until she was contacted by GV Wire Tuesday afternoon. “That’s interesting,” she said. “That’s great, but I don’t think it necessarily changes things, because we’re working off of the last decision that was made at the board (to begin interviews of internal candidates only) …

“I guess when we get together on Wednesday we’ll see if there’s new direction. But I haven’t received any official communication from anyone about that,” Islas said. She said she has not changed her mind about conducting a statewide search for the new superintendent.

District Has Turned to National Searches to Fill Other Jobs

If the district would conduct national searched for positions such as principal, cook, and janitor, it makes no sense not to do the same for the district’s superintendent, Wittrup said at the news conference. The board should widen the search so that trustees and the community know that the best qualified candidates have had an opportunity to be considered, she said. And if that candidate turns out to be someone who already works for the district, the board and commu8nity will know that the person competed with strong candidates to get the job, Wittrup said.

“Our next superintendent must have a proven track record of action, urgency, and accountability with accelerating academic achievement, particularly in the areas of literacy and mathematics, school safety, and school district finances. … It may take a little while to find our next superintendent. And there is no need to rush.” — Susan Wittrup, Fresno Unified School Board President

“Our next superintendent must have a proven track record of action, urgency, and accountability with accelerating academic achievement, particularly in the areas of literacy and mathematics, school safety, and school district finances, she said. “Working well with labor partners and passing successful responsible bond measures to improve dilapidated facilities (are also important),” she said.

“It may take a little while to find our next superintendent. And there is no need to rush.”

Maria Lemus, district director for Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula, read a statement from Arambula in which he called on the School Board to conduct a nationwide search for the district’s next superintendent.

“Changes are urgently needed in Fresno Unified, the state’s third largest school district,” she read in his statement. “It is imperative that the Fresno Unified governing board members do not shortcut the search process. The community knows that Fresno Unified students are not meeting standards and continue to post low level results on measures of academic performance. While there may be strong internal candidates for this important job, a thorough, thoughtful, and transparent national search must be conducted.”

Fresno Unified students tested lower than other local school districts and the state average on last year’s state assessment testing. (GV Wire)

 Councilmembers Also Are Parents

Councilmembers Miguel Arias and Nelson Esparza said they were speaking as parents of Fresno Unified students in their call for an open search to include statewide applicants as well as internal ones.

And, Arias questioned whether the School Board might have been led astray by the report from the search firm, Leadership Associates, that said the community’s goals included hiring a local candidate.

Arias said he attended the listening session at Edison High School, “and I can tell you that no one in that meeting requested an internal candidate. And anyone who suggests otherwise is simply lying, which should disqualify them from seeking higher office, bottom line.”

What parents and community members did say at the meeting was for the School Board to find someone who understands the demographics of the district’s student population, who has a history of working with English language learners, and who has a proven record of improving academic achievement, he said.

Don’t Ignore Community’s Voice

Fresno Teachers Assocation President Manuel Bonilla said the board’s use of Leadership Associates is just the latest instance of hiring outside consultants whose voices seem to mean more to trustees than the voices of community members.

“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.— Fresno Teachers Association President Manuel Bonilla

“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,” he said.

Why is there such strong interest in the selection of Fresno Unified’s next superintendent? City Councilman Mike Karbassi said that it’s crucial for Fresno students to get the education they will need to be successful in college and career, because the city’s future hinges on their success.

“Now, let’s face it, we know what kids are going through. We can see and feel their struggle. Far too many of them can’t read and write at grade level and are graduating without those skills. And they enter our workforce unprepared for life,” he said.

“What kids need at home are parents that care. But they also need leadership at this district that has the ability to say the status quo isn’t enough. And that education is a civil right, and we’re going to provide a quality education to our kids.”

GO Public Schools Fresno, which has been advocating for academic improvements for Fresno Unified students for years, warns that the School Board will risk losing the public’s trust if it ignores the widespread call to open the superintendent search to external candidates.

Sade Williams, GO Public Schools Fresno South Valley director, plans to deliver a statement at the Wednesday board meeting calling for the board to consider more candidates because the report on the community listening sessions was incomplete.

“Despite significant alignment in certain focal areas, vital information was withheld from FUSD board trustees to guide their decision. This has resulted in a loss of trust and feelings of dismissal,” she said in a statement released Tuesday. “Families want their next superintendent to be set up for success.

“If the new superintendent enters the role on a foundation of perceived dishonesty or disregard for the time and input of families, it will only make it much harder for this new superintendent to effectively and collaboratively lead our schools. We urge you to continue to gather family input through an open process. Let’s ensure this next leader has families as partners — not as opposition.”

Homebuyers Avoid Fresno Unified

In a city that faces a shortage of housing having a failing school district only compounds the problem, said Darius Assemi, president and CEO of Granville Homes.

(Note: Assemi also is publisher of GV Wire.)

Granville Homes does not build homes in Fresno Unified “because of test scores,” he said. “And because our homebuyers don’t want their kids to go to Fresno Unified schools.”

A poster hanging at the news conference showed how Fresno Unified students’ proficiency in reading and math is far below not only the state average but also Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, and neighboring Clovis Unified School District.

Only about one-third of Fresno Unified students were reading at or above grade level and  less than a quarter were doing math at or above grade level according to last year’s state assessments testing.

Retired Judge Robert Oliver recalled that Trustee Keshia Thomas talked last July about the district’s dismal academic performance in crisis terms, saying “there’s a 911. The house is on fire.”

“That, to me, suggests that all hands are needed to create a way to put out the fire,” Oliver said.

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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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