While the first-ever Fresno Unified Education Summit held on Tuesday was meant to be about what people want in a future superintendent, what they don’t want – and what they feel they had in former leader Michael Hanson – was ultimately the theme of the night.
A panel of Fresno Unified trustees fielded questions in a public town hall-style meeting at People’s Church alongside the Fresno Teachers Association – an event the first of its kind, meant to signal a new era after Hanson was terminated without cause in January.
“There is this feeling of a renewed sense of hope in the district because there has been a change, and there will continue to be change,” FTA President Tish Rice said. “People are hopeful – they think things could get better.”
Hundreds of teachers were able to ask school board president Brooke Ashjian and trustees Valerie Davis, Carol Mills, Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas and Claudia Cazares questions about three issues: the search for the next superintendent; sustaining educators and creating the best learning environment.
Trustee Cal Johnson was not present, and Christopher De La Cerda was in the audience but not on the panel. He said he had a prior obligation cancel at the last minute but that the FTA told him it was too late to sit on the panel.
Tuesday’s open dialogue showed a well-received board acting on its promise to be more open with the public, after years of criticism for a lack of transparency amid a federal investigation of the district’s construction contracts. The board has vowed to involve the community in its selection of Fresno Unified’s next leader, and last week conducted public interviews for a search firm to lead that national search.
Mills said she wants the next superintendent to demonstrate honesty and integrity above all else, but what she doesn’t want was pointed at her past problems with Hanson.
“I want someone who does not divide the board. I want someone who is transparent and shares information with everyone on the board – not just some of the board members,” she said. “I want somebody who takes direction from the board because frankly, the board is accountable to all of you, and if we’re not voting the way you want, you should be voting us out of office.”
Jonasson Rosas – who has pushed for as much community involvement as possible in the superintendent search, including recommending students have a say – said she wants to see the board’s momentum toward change continue.
“I think our board has come a long way, and I wouldn’t want to see a return to the era that was before me. There was a lot of divisiveness and maybe not enough trust,” she said. “I hope you all are feeling a little more hopeful in the direction we have taken recently. Actions are what matters and I hope you’re seeing that.”
There were calls for a local superintendent to take on the role – someone who is familiar with Fresno or diverse cities like it. Others asked that interim superintendent Bob Nelson, Hanson’s former chief of staff, stay in the position. Teachers and trustees were split on whether candidate interviews should be held publicly.
Sallie Prudhume, a teacher at Calwa Elementary, asked that the board decrease the salary for the superintendent. Hanson earned nearly $370,000 in 2016.
“I don’t want you to break the bank to hire our next superintendent,” Prudhume said. “We are struggling financially as a district, and he is close to having the same income as the president of the United States of America.”
Ashjian vowed to make sure that teachers’ grievances with Hanson would not be there with the next leader.
“I hear some of the frustration in your voice, and I hear some of the change in the air. I think that it’s very important for all of us to be able to pump the brakes and say, ‘OK it’s a re-setting time,’ ” he said. “We’re going to hear you, we’re going to listen to you. We can’t give you everything, but we certainly can do better.”
The teachers’ union sponsored the event.