Fresno Unified trustee changes position, now wants nationwide superintendent search

As Fresno Unified kicks off its superintendent hiring with interviews of interested district employees, trustee Claudia Cazares seemed to flip sides overnight under public pressure and now supports including external candidates in a national search for the district’s next leader.

The board now has a thin majority of members who prefer to accept outside applicants for the role. Cazares, who posted on Facebook on Tuesday morning, said community feedback is an important part of the process and that she internalized the recommendations she has heard lately.

“Given the strong pull towards opening the search nationwide, I requested that we move in that direction, as well, several days ago,” says the Facebook post. “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.”

Cazares didn’t reply to The Fresno Bee’s interview request to discuss her changing position. The board president referred to in the Facebook post is Susan Wittrup, who called a press conference yesterday to restate her stand on opening the position to external applicants.

Fresno Unified community leaders, including School Board President Susan Wittrup, called on an open and transparent superintendent search in front of the district’s building on April 2, 2024.
Fresno Unified community leaders, including School Board President Susan Wittrup, called on an open and transparent superintendent search in front of the district’s building on April 2, 2024.

It is unclear how Cazares’ post will affect the process and if the board will take a new vote to change which pool of candidates it might consider. Last week, a petition initiated by community leaders, including Wittrup, city council members, and Fresno Teachers Association representatives, called out a “narrow majority of board members” who leaned towards interviewing only internal candidates. Cazares was among the four trustees being criticized for “hurting the success of Fresno students.” The petition has gathered 350 signatures as of Wednesday.

Trustee Keshia Thomas, who was also among the group, said revealing the information discussed in a closed session is a violation of The Brown Act, the state’s open meetings and public records law.

Thomas added that she attended her region’s listening session, when parents and others were given the chance to express the qualities they wanted in the next superintendent. She pointed out that no one talked about external or internal applicants because that question was never asked. She said people would like to have a superintendent lead the district in the right direction, and people outside of Fresno may not have experience with such a large district.

“Not that we wouldn’t do an external search, this was only part of our first steps,” said Thomas. “Unless you live here, you don’t really understand our dynamics, you don’t understand our demographics.”

Internal hiring is the norm, expert says

David Cash, a superintendent headhunter from the consulting firm Education Leadership Services, told The Bee that it’s common for districts to consider internal candidates solely to maintain a sense of continuity and consistency. Cash has 15 years of superintendent experience, serving districts such as Claremont, Santa Barbara, and Clovis.

“If they have qualified candidates inside, it’s often the best route to go, particularly if they are happy with the direction the district is going,” said Cash. “Trouble in the boardroom at the superintendent’s office has a direct result in student achievement, so if they got good internal candidates, it’s probably the best thing they can do to avoid wasting the time of external candidates.”

However, Fresno Unified has long been criticized for its performance, particularly its underperforming test scores, safety issues, and a persistent culture of lacking transparency and accountability. In Fresno Unified, 66.8% and 76.7% of students did not meet the state requirement level of English language arts and math, respectively, in the school year of 2022-23, according to data from the California Department of Education. The district has also been struggling with declining enrollment and attendance.

Amid the public outcry for an open and transparent search, as well as the “strong ties to the community” stated in the district’s contracted consulting firm Leadership Associates’ report, Trustee Veva Islas says she supports expanding the search to include candidates from the Fresno area but not necessarily only the district’s current employees.

“It could be somebody that was born and raised in Fresno that graduated from here and went off to school somewhere else, and maybe has a career in education elsewhere but is ready to come back to Fresno,” she said. “I think local could also be within the surrounding communities because we do have a number of former staff who have gone on to be superintendents in neighboring school districts.”

She said she believes constituents would want the board to exhaust every opportunity to find the best-qualified applicant.

“It doesn’t mean that a best qualified applicant can’t come from the district, but we don’t know that until we see everybody available, and I think if we don’t interview externally, then we’re not doing our due diligence to interview everybody that could be qualified,” Islas said.

The superintendent job description has only been posted internally, but she hopes the board would create an opportunity for external candidates to be interviewed, and the finalists would get a second interview before the board makes a final decision.