Fresno Unified pauses superintendent search, wants a do-over as public decries political games

Fresno Unified school board voted 5-2 on Wednesday to suspend planned interviews of several internal candidates for the open superintendent job.

The public packed the school district building to attend the evening meeting, with dozens of parents and others expressing concerns about the search-and-interview process. The board said no decisions were made in the closed-door meeting that followed, and stressed that they’ll re-evaluate the path forward based on the public’s feedback.

At issue has been limits placed by a narrow majority of the board on the pool of potential candidates that would be considered and whether that pool would be limited to internal candidates or include a broader group, such as candidates identified in a national search. Internal and public pressure to widen the pool, which spilled out into public view at a planned press conference earlier this week, prompted one trustee to change her position via a Facebook post on Tuesday morning.

That trustee, Claudia Cazares, put forth a motion at the Wednesday meeting to pause the current process and extend the search nationwide. Trustee Andy Levine offered an amendment to conduct the scheduled interviews and then commit to a comprehensive external search.

Cazares stood by her original proposal, stating that the procedure was not transparent and the board should take a step back. Her motion passed with Levine and Veva Islas dissenting. The two trustees wanted to honor and respect the interviewees because they had invested time and prepared for their interview.

Fresno Unified is the third-largest district in the most populous state in the union. It has struggled with lagging test scores, declining enrollment and disconnection between administrations and classrooms. There is a strong public perception that allowing applicants outside of district employees would ensure the district selects the finest superintendent to help improve the chronically underperforming district, which is extremely diverse and where 90% of students live in poverty.

The board received over 30 public comments Wednesday. Some speakers called for the board to accept applicants outside of district employees to obtain the best possible superintendent candidates, and that decisions be made with full transparency and accountability. Members of the Hmong community were concerned that putting qualified internal candidates, particularly people of color, against external candidates, was culturally insensitive and could lead to racial bias.

Fresno Unified School District building was packed on April 3, 2024, as the public voiced their concerns over the superintendent search.
Fresno Unified School District building was packed on April 3, 2024, as the public voiced their concerns over the superintendent search.

Christina Soto, a community member, said she spent five hours attending earlier-scheduled listening sessions only to find the public feedback misrepresented and ignored.

“Community stated that we wanted someone who is familiar with their values, that doesn’t need to be internal,” she said. “I’m sure there are many people across the state and maybe the nation who have Central Valley roots and would be very qualified.”

She added that a lack of transparency had caused misinformation and misrepresentation to spread, responding to an earlier statement by Trustee Keshia Thomas that the situation had spun out of hand and that board members and candidates received threatening and racist criticisms based on inaccurate assumptions.

Some comments from the public Wednesday criticized the board for playing political games and suggested that putting district employees through a messy process, making them endure the gossip, was an act of microaggression.

“You have candidates in front of you with decades of commitment, expertise, and resolute determination to give every child in our district access to development,” said Geri Johnson, parent and community advocate. “In this process you have fulfilled economic and social resilience, you have that responsibility on your shoulders, do not fail us.”

Johnson said she was active in the listening sessions and spoke with students and parents. The community felt that there were strong, capable, confident internal candidates leading the school district. She said their voices haven’t been heard.

Yvnah Vang, a senior student at Edison High School, came with a group of classmates and told the board that the internal candidates were mostly people of color, reflected a diverse palette of the large ethnic population residing in the area, and questioned why the board would disregard their credentials.

“Your color defines whether you’re good or not to be the superintendent, because it’s no longer you’re a woman or a man, you cannot run,” she said. “And I hope that sounds uncomfortable, and that makes you imagine the discomfort many students, staff, teachers and our parents endured every day during school or at work.”

Sandra Celedon, a parent, said the superintendent is the only employee the board hires. She said she was very disappointed to see the trustees fail to execute their primary job.

“Some of you have made comments even asking, how did you guys get this idea,” she said. “The fact that you fail to even observe and internalize, and it was your every action that has actually created this tension.”

“It is not up to your employees, this is not confirming anybody whether they’re capable or not leading this district, what this demonstrates is that you are not capable of leading the district,” she said.

After a closed session, board President Susan Wittrup announced that the board would take the community input into consideration and contemplate a new path forward in the search for the next superintendent.